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Israel elections 2021If she wins, said likely to run with Huldai's The Israelis

Labor to pick new leader as frontrunner Michaeli looks to renew struggling party

37,104 party members will choose between 7 candidates seeking leadership of the once-venerable political force that faces oblivion in March election

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli votes in the party primaries, January 24, 2020 (Courtesy)
Labor MK Merav Michaeli votes in the party primaries, January 24, 2020 (Courtesy)

Labor members go to the polls on Sunday to task a new leader with saving the center-left party, which governed Israel for its first three decades of statehood, from total oblivion in March’s election.

Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil in the party, and the emergence of new political players that have eroded its base. After entering the government after the previous election, the party lost virtually all of its support and no recent opinion poll has predicted it will enter the next Knesset.

Seven candidates are nonetheless seeking to lead to party back to relevance by becoming its third leader in four years. Economy Minister Amir Peretz, the Knesset’s longest-serving member, announced he would step aside as Labor leader and earlier this month said he won’t run in the upcoming elections.

With party No. 2, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli. announcing last week that he would not be running in the primary and that he had decided to leave the party altogether, Labor’s only only other current Knesset member, Merav Michaeli, is seen as the strong frontrunner.

Labor MKs Itzik Shmuli (L) and Amir Peretz at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In April, following the last election, Peretz took Labor into the unity government lead by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upending repeated campaign promises to never serve under a prime minister facing a criminal indictment. Michaeli rejected sitting in the coalition under Netanyahu, making her a de facto opposition member within her own party, and within the coalition.

She now says the party must renew itself as a center-left alternative to the right and center-right parties that have taken prominence in recent years.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli at a Labor-Gesher faction meeting at the Knesset on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We have an opportunity to save the Labor Party and bring it back to the center of the stage,” she said in a video message to supporters Saturday night.

“But it’s not in our pocket,” she warned. “It’s in your hands, go out and vote. Let’s vote and let’s bring the truth back to politics.”

Michaeli has said she is open to joining with another party before the election in order to increase Labor’s chances of passing the electoral threshold, but only if they are an “ideological ally.” The Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday morning that if she wins, she is likely to sign an agreement to run with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party.

In addition to Michaeli, Labor activists Navah Katz, Avi Shaked, David Landesman, Yitzhak Time, Ofer Segman and Gil Beilin — the son of former Labor MK and minister Yossi Beilin — are also running, hoping for an upset that will see them take a surprise win.

A total 37,104 party members will be eligible to vote in the primary, with 100 polling stations across the country opening at their doors from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Despite the nationwide lockdown, voters will be allowed to travel to the polling stations due to an exemption in the coronavirus rules allowing the public to vote in primaries ahead of the election.

Labor party members celebrate after the release of the results in the party primaries in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019 (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Earlier this month, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Labor must hold primaries, despite a decision by Peretz to cancel them, in a win for Michaeli, who had pushed for the primaries.

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 is currently the only party competing in the upcoming elections to be holding open primaries for all its members.

The results of Sunday’s vote are expected to be announced by around 11 p.m.

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