In win for rebel MK Michaeli, court forces Labor to hold primaries

Left-wing lawmaker announces bid for leadership of embattled party after overturning leader Peretz’s decision to cancel internal vote

Labor party head MK Amir Peretz and party member MK Merav Michaeli at a press conference with party members at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, following the announcement of the Trump peace plan, on January 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor party head MK Amir Peretz and party member MK Merav Michaeli at a press conference with party members at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, following the announcement of the Trump peace plan, on January 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a victory for Labor MK Merav Michaeli, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled Sunday afternoon that party primaries must be held despite a decision by its outgoing leader, Amir Peretz, to cancel them.

The ruling accepted a petition filed by Michaeli, and forces Labor to uphold the party constitution, which requires primaries for both the leadership and the electoral slate ahead of the upcoming March elections.

Michaeli filed the petition after Peretz announced he would not run for the party leadership and that the entire slate would be compiled by the party’s central committee, rather than opening up to all party members. His move was seen as an attempt to pass the leadership directly to party No. 2, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli.

Michaeli, who refused to go along with Peretz’s decision to enter a unity government alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcomed the ruling and said it “defends the right of Labor Party members to elect those who represent them.”

MK Amir Peretz speaks at a faction meeting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

She subsequently announced that she would be running in the primaries.

“A little over a month ago, Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli tried to snatch the Labor party from its members and turn it into a dictatorship without primaries. They failed. Democracy has won, truth has won, justice has won, we have won,” she said in a statement.

“This struggle is a struggle of members of the Labor Party, and in fact of everyone who wants the State of Israel to continue to be a democracy and our politics to be clean and credible,” she said. “I have fought for it so far, and I will continue to fight for it.”

Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks during a protest in Jerusalem, November 9, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Primaries were introduced into Israeli politics in the early 1990s when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process. Since then, however, most new parties have forgone internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials chooses a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

Labor chairman Peretz said he was stepping aside as leader of the dovish party last month, after steering Labor to its lowest-ever showing in the past election and later breaking his campaign promise not to join a Netanyahu government.

Michaeli had cheered Peretz’s decision to step down as chairman and called for immediate leadership primaries.

Labor, Israel’s ruling left-wing party during its first 30 years and a dominant force in the country’s politics until several years ago, has lost virtually all of its support and no recent opinion poll has predicted it will enter the next Knesset.

In April, following the last election, the party’s central committee voted in favor of joining the unity government, upending repeated campaign promises to never serve under a prime minister facing a criminal indictment. Peretz serves as the economy minister and Shmuli as minister of labor, social welfare and social services.

Labor lawmakers Itzik Shmuli (L) and Merav Michaeli at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Michaeli rejected sitting in the coalition under Netanyahu, making her a de facto opposition member within her own party, and within the coalition.

Netanyahu and Gantz reached an agreement that was supposed to see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021, but a loophole in the agreement saw the coalition collapse due to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass an annual budget.

Israel is consequently now gearing up for a fourth election in two years, which will take place on March 23.

Labor’s centrist coalition partner, the Blue and White party, has also seen its support plummet following the establishment of the government. For the first time, a poll indicated on Friday that the party headed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz will not make it into the Knesset in the next election.

Like Labor, Gantz violated repeated campaign promises by joining Netanyahu in the coalition. Gantz said at the time that Israel needed a functioning government during the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic strife, instead of an immediate fourth election, after the previous votes ended in gridlock with no one able to form a governing coalition.

In the Friday survey by Maariv, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new left-wing party The Israelis polled at eight seats, and the dovish Meretz at five, similar to other recent polls. The center-left Yesh Atid got 14 seats in the survey, and the predominantly Arab Joint List had 14.

The left’s declining support means the upcoming election will likely be a battle on the right, with popular ex-Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar vying for Netanyahu’s throne with his New Hope faction, along with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

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