Labor primaries

Labor heads to the ballot box with fears of irrelevance and a dovish slide

Shortage of candidates with security credentials harms resurgent socioeconomic-focused party, and Shelly Yachimovich fears her slate will mirror Likud’s tilt rightward

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Shelly Yachimovich speaks during the Labor party's Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv on October 30, 2012. (photo credit: Flash90)
Shelly Yachimovich speaks during the Labor party's Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv on October 30, 2012. (photo credit: Flash90)

The flagship party of Israel’s left wing will head to the polls Thursday to pick its slate for the upcoming elections, with the evolving security situation and Likud’s sharp turn right earlier this week fresh in voters’ minds.

The Labor Party, under the stewardship of Shelly Yachimovich, seems destined to become the Knesset’s second-largest faction, but recent events may weaken the party’s position in the Israeli electorate’s mind.

Labor’s hopes that the election agenda would focus on socioeconomic issues have been quashed by the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict, the current attention being given to the Palestinians’ UN nonmember status gambit, and ongoing concern over Iran’s nuclear progress.

Labor is still projected to fare well in the elections, but it is light on top-level candidates with a defense background, and heavy on those, like Yachimovich herself, who seek to right perceived socioeconomic wrongs.

In addition to eight incumbent Labor MKs who can expect to be placed in high positions on the list, a number of political newcomers, some of whom rose to national prominence during last year’s social protest movement, are hoping to win realistic slots.

Some 70 polling stations across the country were to open at 10:00 A.M. and close 12 hours later for the 60,000 eligible voters. Results are not expected before Friday morning, since the party decided to hold the vote the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, after the Likud party primaries Sunday were marred by serious computer glitches and had to be extended until Monday night.

More than 80 candidates are competing, but only about a quarter of them will make it to the 19th Knesset: Most recent polls forecast about 21 seats for Labor. A survey taken in the aftermath of Tzipi Livni’s announcement of the launch of her new centrist The Movement party on Tuesday gave Yachimovich’s party only 18 seats, which would still make Labor the second-strongest force in the next Knesset, beaten only by the joint list of Likud and Yisrael Beytenu.

As party chair, Yachimovich is the automatic first place on Labor’s list. The fifth, ninth, fourteenth and nineteenth spots are reserved for women; slots reserved for regional representatives and minorities such as Arabs and immigrants start from place 17 downward.

Parallel to the clear rightward shift of the Likud party, which chose a Knesset list dominated by nationalist hardliners, Yachimovich is worried about her list tilting too much to the left.

“It’s absurd, but I face a similar challenge to the one that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu faced,” Yachimovich was quoted as saying at a parlor meeting with national-religious citizens on Tuesday. “Presumably, he, too, didn’t want certain people in his party.”

Hardliner Moshe Feiglin, for example, was placed 15th on Likud’s list and is thus virtually guaranteed a Knesset seat, despite Netanyahu sparing no efforts trying to prevent that. Netanyahu — who has tried to appear as a relative moderate willing to engage in realpolitik — was also disappointed that MKs Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, who are perceived as “moderates” within the party, did not receive realistic slots.

Yachimovich, on the other hand, seeks to position Labor as a centrist party that is not obsessed with diplomatic issues. Rather than focusing on the peace process and Israel’s future borders, she wants the upcoming election campaign to center around on socioeconomic issues, analysts say.

Indeed, the Labor list lacks a top candidate with bona fide security credentials. Uri Sagi, a former general and head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, had originally planned to run for Labor, but stepped out of the race after reports of allegations of sexual misconduct appeared.

Besides the current Labor MKs — Yachimovich, Amir Peretz, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog, Daniel Ben Simon, Avishay Braverman, Eitan Cabel and Raleb Majadele — the party’s list will include some political refugees from the floundering Kadima party but also some new faces affiliated with the far-left.

Peace Now's Yariv Oppenheimer (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

For example Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary-general of the Peace Now movement — an object of hate for Israel’s right — is hoping for a realistic slot after two failed attempts to get on the party’s slate.

Oppenheimer, who has headed Peace Now since 2003, said he would promote a political platform alongside the social and economic programs being advanced by other Labor candidates. The 35-year-old pledged to “bring a clear political agenda that advocates a two-state solution and ending the huge investments in the settlements.”

Another darling of the party’s left wing is television personality and Haaretz columnist Merav Michaeli.

“All of my adult life I have been a social activist and feminist, while working as a journalist,” she wrote on her Facebook profile when she declared she was running. “In both areas I acted to right wrongs, for equality, for the empowerment of women and for other disadvantaged sectors. Now I want to do this in politics, where things are decided on and where funds are distributed.”

Senior Labor officials said Yachimovich does not necessarily view Michaeli’s and Oppenheimer’s candidacies with great enthusiasm. Former defense minister Peretz, who is Yachimovich’s biggest rival within the party, however, is said to strongly support Michaeli and Oppenheimer. The former Labor chief is himself one of the founders of Peace Now.

Yet Yachimovich, in line with her focus on social justices issues, warmly welcomed the candidacies of Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli. The two are political greenhorns but were among the most recognizable personalities of the social protest movement that drove tens of thousands of Israeli to the streets in the summer of 2011 to protest the high cost of living.

National Student Union chairman Itzik Shmuli, one of the leaders of the summer 2011 social justice protests, shakes hands with Shelly Yachimovich as he joins the Labor Party on October 17. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
National Student Union chairman Itzik Shmuli shakes hands with Shelly Yachimovich as he joins the Labor Party on October 17. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“What started on the street has to end in the ballot box,” Shmuli said when he announced he was joining Labor. “The biggest challenge facing me and my colleagues is to make sure that the clear agenda of the upcoming campaign is a socioeconomic agenda.”

“Since Shelly Yachimovich was elected to lead the party,” Shaffir said, “and even before the beginning of the social protests, the Labor party has worked to advance an agenda of social and economic justice. It is committed to the social-democratic ideals in which I believe and which I view as the core values of the social protest movement.”

Other prominent names hoping for a spot among the top 20 are investigative journalist Miki Rosenthal; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of Israeli’s Reform movement; Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad Shalit; venture capitalist Erel Margalit; Eytan Schwartz, who won the reality television show “The Ambassador” in 2005 and currently serves as senior adviser for international affairs to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai; and Ra’anana Mayor Nahum Hofri.

Two current Kadima MKs are also competing in Thursday’s primaries: Nino Abesadze and Nachman Shai.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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