At the opening of the sole Labor party voting booth in Jerusalem on Tuesday, leadership candidate Avi Gabbay was speaking confidently to reporters about his chances for success when a gust of wind flattened his campaign tent in the foreground and sent a dozen blue-shirted activists scrambling. It made a rather apt metaphor for a party which governed Israel for the first 30 years of state, but has struggled increasingly in recent years to impose itself.
The activists for ex-Kulanu minister Gabbay had the strongest presence at the polls in the largely conservative capital, where the number of journalists and volunteers present greatly outnumbered the voters for a center-left party flailing for a political comeback.
Arriving with his elderly mother on his arm, ex-Kulanu environmental protection minister Gabbay — who crossed the political aisle after quitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2016 — told the assembled reporters that the second round of voting on July 10 would be a match between him and current party leader Isaac Herzog.
A short while later, faint chanting and cheering grew stronger as Labor MK Erel Margalit arrived with an entourage, setting off a yelling match between dueling activists struggling to drown each other out.
Margalit and Gabbay embraced awkwardly.
The second round of voting will be between Herzog or former Labor leader Amir Peretz and himself, Margalit told reporters.
The Labor party’s 40-year political dry spell will soon end, said the Jerusalem-based entrepreneur and sitting MK. Remember, “the Jewish people had 40 years in the desert before they arrived at the promised land,” he said.
But despite pledges by all seven candidates to would unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in the next elections, many Labor voters on line were unconvinced.
“I don’t know if he’s strong enough, but that’s all there is,” said Motke Stockhammer, a pensioner and lifetime Labor party member who was backing Herzog in the leadership race. “I don’t think the party at all will be able to oust Netanyahu”
Even some of Gabbay’s volunteers appeared skeptical, as one ironically revised the ubiquitous Israeli election chant — “Ho ha, who’s that coming? The next prime minister” — to “… The next economy minister,” earning quiet snickers from the others.
To win, ‘you need to be a movie actor’
The leadership contest for the ailing Labor party — plagued by internal divisions since current leader Herzog engaged in coalition negotiations to join Netanyahu’s government in 2016 — will move to a second round of voting next week between the top two contenders, should none of the candidates receive more than 40 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
The primary pits Herzog against ex-Labor leader Amir Peretz, Gabbay, Margalit, Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev, and two other candidates whose chances of success were not considered realistic. The results were set to be announced around 10 p.m. on Tuesday.
The race comes after the Labor party has slipped in the opinion polls over the past year; surveys now predict it could lose as many as half of its 24 Knesset seats to the rival centrist Yesh Atid party.
Shalom Brinn, also a pensioner, said he was supporting Margalit because today, to win “you need to be a movie actor. He’s the only one who has it.”
Gabbay is also “very good,” but “too quiet,” he opined.
The grievances with the party were on display as Brinn said he would abandon ship if its current or former leaders regained control.
“If Peretz or Herzog get in, I’ll need to find myself a new party,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know which one. “This is the generation that destroyed the party.”
Orit Cohen, a high school teacher in Ma’ale Adumim, said she was voting for Margalit because he’s a “refreshing change.” Cohen, who joined the Labor party a decade ago after shifting her political allegiances from the right, cautiously predicted that Margalit could oust Netanyahu.
“I very much want to believe yes,” she said.
But Niva, a university student who voted for Bar-Lev and declined to give her last name, said she was mostly seeking a new opposition leader.
“I don’t think Netanyahu will go anywhere in the coming decades,” she said.
She was standing with Gabbay-backing student, who asked to remain anonymous and was more optimistic about his chances, noting that general elections were not scheduled for another two years, giving the candidates ample time to mount a challenge.
For two years, ‘being a member of the party was embarrassing’
He said that over the past two years, “being a member of the party was embarrassing” and its “conduct both internally and externally was plastic, unconvincing and inauthentic.”
“Finally, a politician has come who is broadcasting something that in my view, in his discourse and style, is real,” he said of Gabbay.
‘Baptism by fire’
While support for Jerusalem residents Gabbay and Margalit appeared to dominate in the capital, Sonia Cohen, a long-time Herzog activist and adviser to the Labor party chief on neighborhood issues, insisted the opposition leader would do better the second time around.
“In the Labor party, they cut off heads all the time… they don’t let the chairman work,” said Cohen, who referred to the party’s tested trend of choosing a new leader in each primary vote. “He went through this baptism by fire already, when they tried to cut off his head. In the next four years, when he leads again, maybe they’ll let him work and prove his capabilities — and he has capabilities.”
Nor did Cohen, a Labor member for 30 years, think a victory for Herzog would send him racing back into negotiations with Netanyahu.
“I don’t think he’ll enter the coalition; he wants to create a bloc of his own,” she said.