Battered and weakened after suffering its worst election results in its history, the Labor Party on Monday took a resolute step toward holding a new leadership contest as soon as possible, calling a party conference for next month where members of its central committee will be asked to approve the primary for November.
Incumbent leader Avi Gabbay has come under increasing pressure to step down, after the party only managed to scrape together enough votes for six seats in last month’s election, the worst-ever showing for the party or its Mapai predecessor, which led Israel for its first 30 years.
In the 2015 elections, Labor, as part of the Zionist Union party, won 24 seats.
While Gabbay is not currently set to face a leadership primary until June 2020, bringing the vote forward could work in his favor, given that few other senior party members would have the resources to mount a serious challenge within just six months. Despite facing calls to step down, he is expected to run to keep his position.
His chief rival, former Labor leader Amir Peretz, has called for a temporary leader to be chosen from among the party’s Knesset members, who would serve in the position until primaries can held closer to another general election.
“The primaries today would be disconnected to the public sentiment and the party cannot now choose a candidate for prime minister in four years time… Let’s hold a emergency conference in which a temporary chairman is elected for a year or two, and meanwhile the party will be able to breathe and be rehabilitated,” Peretz told Gabbay in Monday’s faction meeting, where the two were the only Knesset members attending.
Gabbay however thinks that he has a better chance of winning a vote of the entire party membership rather than just the central election committee, whom he fears could turn against him.
According to Peretz, the embattled leader should have resigned as party leader immediately after the dismal election results. “Gabbay should have put down the keys, like every owner of a large company whose company has collapsed — he is in charge and no one else,” he told The Times of Israel after Monday’s meeting.
Labor’s secretary general, Eran Hermoni, told Gabbay in the meeting that his refusal to step down was an affront to the party. “You are blocking democracy, you are bullying. It is not a Byzantine court here. Have you learned nothing from this election? A little humility will not hurt you.”
While another former leader, MK Shelly Yachimovitch, has said she will not run to lead the party again, Labor Knesset members Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir have hinted at the possibility of running.
The two first entered politics in 2013 after gaining a national platform by leading national protests over the cost of living. Shmuli was the top vote-getter when the party held a general primary to set its Knesset list in February, followed by Shaffir.
Gabbay, who served as a minister for Kulanu in 2015-2016 and then quit the party to join Labor was elected to the Knesset for the first time in April’s election. Immediately after the vote, he made clear that he did not intend to quit the party altogether but to serve as an MK.
“I will continue to work for the Labor movement and the Israeli public and on April 30th will be sworn in as a member of the Israeli Knesset and serve the public from the opposition,” he said. He called the results, which gave Labor just 4.46 percent of the total vote, “a huge disappointment” and “a real blow to our electoral power,” but did not and has not addressed the calls for him to step down.
The results point to a decline for the party that was instrumental in establishing the State of Israel.
The Labor Party was formed in 1968 by a merger of three parties, one of which was David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, which was founded in 1930. In the years leading to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Mapai was the de facto leadership of the Jewish community and played a key role in the creation of the state.
Labor remained Israel’s unchallenged ruling party until 1977, when Likud wrested the premiership away. Since then, it held power for a total of eight years, two of them as part of a unity government with Likud. That period included the 1990s Oslo Accords, negotiated by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres.
Ehud Barak’s victory in the 1999 elections and his two-year premiership was the last time an Israeli coalition was led by Labor, which has since seen a dizzying history of replacing its chairman after election losses with a whopping total of 12 different leaders winning only one term at the helm.
Even with bringing the primary early, Gabbay may well be the next.