Tens of thousands of Labor party members were headed to the polls on Tuesday in the first round of voting for a new leader of the center-left party and opposition.
The crowded field of seven candidates features current leader Isaac Herzog squaring off with former Labor leader and Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz and ex-minister of the Kulanu party Avi Gabbay — the three politicians leading the race, according to some projection polls.
Peretz, a former defense minister, has been campaigning vigorously for the post since December.
Gabbay, meanwhile, was seen as the dark horse in the race, bringing fresh blood and a right-wing political history to the traditionally dovish party. A former minister in Netanyahu’s government who quit in May 2016 after coalition talks brought the Yisrael Beytenu party into the government, he claims to have brought thousands of new members to the Labor party. However, since he is not a sitting Knesset member, Gabbay would likely not be permitted to serve as opposition leader should he win.
Also vying for the top post are Zionist Union MKs Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev, an entrepreneur and ex-general, respectively. Pulling up in the rear were unknowns Hod Krovi and Avner Ben-Zaken.
Two other candidates — Dina Dayan and Amiram Levin — have withdrawn from the race. Dayan, an ultra-Orthodox woman from southern Israel, on Monday announced she would be supporting Herzog, while Levin — a former IDF major-general — said he would back ex-CEO of the Bezeq telecom giant Gabbay.
Unless there is a decisive winner with over 40 percent of the votes in the first round on Tuesday, a run-off vote between the two top candidates will be held next Monday.
Some 53,000 people are eligible to vote, according to a spokesperson for the party’s secretary-general.
The primaries come after Labor has plummeted over the past year in opinion polls, receiving a projected 10-12 seats (combined with the Hatnua party that makes up the Zionist Union faction), down from its current 24 seats.
The winner of the leadership bid will likely determine whether the center-left party, plagued by internal divisions, is able to become the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in the next elections and consequently, whether it could seize the premiership.
Meanwhile, the centrist Yesh Atid party appears to have wooed most of Labor’s voters, climbing steadily in surveys and at this point poised to become the top contender against Likud, according to the polls.