Meet the top candidates jostling for deckchairs on board Labor’s sinking ship
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Labor primaries 2019

Meet the top candidates jostling for deckchairs on board Labor’s sinking ship

With the center-left mainstay party bound for a poor showing in April’s general elections, several veteran lawmakers’ careers are on the line

Raoul Wootliff

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

A scene from the 1997 movie 'Titanic' showing the last lifeboat leaving the sinking ship. (Paramount Pictures)
A scene from the 1997 movie 'Titanic' showing the last lifeboat leaving the sinking ship. (Paramount Pictures)

The analogy of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is almost too obvious to use to describe Monday’s Labor primaries, in which 44 candidates are vying for the top spots on the electoral slate for April’s elections. But amid dismal polling showing that Labor could be wiped off Israel’s political map for good, the fierce fight for seats may indeed only be a footnote to the venerable party’s sinking history.

While last week’s Likud primary featured fierce competition to make the top five spots on the list and all but guarantee a place at the cabinet table, Labor’s first cinque looks set to also be its last, with recent polls indicating that five seats could be the party’s glass ceiling, not its frontage.

In a sign of the dim forecast, only 14 of the 24 MKs who entered the Knesset with the party in 2015 are seeking reelection. And with the first slot on the slate automatically filled by party chairman Avi Gabbay and the second allocated to a candidate of his choice, odds look extremely slim for both the veteran lawmakers and newcomers who had been hoping to join them.

The primary is being seen by some in the party as a last chance to save it from oblivion, with activists hoping that a final slate of popular and dynamic candidates can revitalize it in the next two months of election campaigning. For the top candidates, Monday’s vote is not just a chance to turn things around, but also an opportunity to situate themselves in the queue to replace Gabbay after April’s national poll.

Polling booths for the Labor party primary in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)

Since adopting the primary system in 1992, Labor has not reelected a single leader for two consecutive terms. The closest it came to that was voting for Ehud Barak twice — a decade apart — in 1999 and 2009.

It’s a dizzying shuffle of leaders: Yitzhak Rabin was replaced by Shimon Peres after the former’s assassination in 1995. Peres was replaced by Barak in 1997 after losing the general election the year before to Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak was replaced by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in 2001 after Barak’s election loss to Likud’s Ariel Sharon that year. Amram Mitzna defeated Ben-Eliezer for party leader in 2002, but was himself soon replaced by Peres after the loss to Sharon’s Likud in the 2003 elections. Amir Peretz defeated Peres for party leadership in 2005, then lost to a revivified Barak in 2007 in the wake of the previous year’s Second Lebanon War. Barak abandoned the party in 2011, triggering a leadership race won by Shelly Yachimovich, who then lost the top spot just two years later to Isaac Herzog. Herzog, despite a relatively strong showing in the 2015 elections, was still roundly beaten by Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, paving the way for his eventual replacement by current leader Gabbay.

Gabbay, a former CEO of the Bezeq telecommunication giant, swept the party leadership just a year after resigning as environmental minister and senior member of the center-right Kulanu party. But he has fared poorly in the year and eight months since taking the helm and, following several attempts to place Labor firmly in the political center, has lost support within the party and popularity with the public.

Given Labor’s history of decapitation after election failures, Gabbay is all but certain to face a similar fate to those of his 13 predecessors — if not immediately following the general election then some time after. If the party does manage to pass the electoral threshold and remain in parliament, the winners of the primary will therefore become front-runners to lead it next.

Here are the main candidates with a chance of victory, both on Monday and beyond:

Stav Shaffir

Shaffir, a former leader of Israel’s 2011 mass protests against the high cost of living, has been a lawmaker for Labor since 2013 and has established herself as an outspoken opponent of economic inequality and advocate of transparency in government.

Having sat on the powerful Knesset Finance Committee and currently chairing the parliament’s Transparency Committee, Shaffir, 33, has used the 2019 primary campaign to highlight her record as a strident campaigner against government corruption, which she says runs far, far deeper that the current bribery allegations against Netanyahu.

Witheringly critical of the government’s ostensible failures to tackle socioeconomic inequality, to deal with the fate of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, to advance a diplomatic process with the Arab world, and to prevent what she sees as Israel’s growing isolation, Shaffir has emerged as one of Labor’s most vociferous voices and a key candidate to lead it in the future.

In the 2013 primary, she placed 9th (moving up to 8th on the final list with the resignation of Peretz). In 2015 she was bumped to second (moving down to fourth after the merger between Labor and Hatenua). This year she is hoping, not unrealistically, for the top spot.

Labor MK Stav Shaffir attends an Education, Culture and Sports Committee meeting in the Knesset on January 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Itzik Shmuli

Like Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli entered the Knesset in 2013 after making a name for himself as one of the leaders of the 2011 social protests. And like Shaffir, the former chair of the National Union of Israeli Students has since become a leading member of the party, offering a youthful hope to return it to prominence.

But unlike his colleague, Shmuli, 38, has recently risen within the party establishment by aligning himself with Gabbay despite fierce criticism of the incumbent leader from other directions. After Gabbay broke off his partnership with Hatnua chair Tzipi Livni last month, Shmuli was appointed Labor faction leader and opposition whip, taking over the latter role from Hatnua MK Yoel Hasson.

As an MK, and in his brief role as faction leader, Shmuli has championed minority rights, disabled people’s rights and benefits for pensioners. After publicly coming out as gay following a deadly stabbing attack at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2015, he has also become a key lawmaker in the battle for homosexual surrogacy rights.

In both 2013 and 2015 Shuli finished one place behind Shaffir. This year he hopes to reverse that.

Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

Shelly Yachimovich

With so few realistic seats on offer, both Shaffir and Shmuli are vying to beat their political patron Yachimovich, who headed the party from 2011 to 2013.

In 2013, campaigning on a social-democratic credo and focusing on housing and the economy while barely mentioning peace and security, Yachimovich led the party to a disappointing 15 seats in the general election.

Throughout her career in politics, and before that as a media personality, Yachimovich gained a reputation for antagonism to big business. As Labor leader, she called for Israel to take a more socialist approach to government. “Our goal is to establish an alternative, responsible, social democratic government,” she said at the launch of the 2013 election campaign.

Since being replaced as leader and subsequently failing in a bid to chair Israel’s largest trade union, she has become one of the leading party veterans calling for it to more fully embrace and advocate a social-democratic worldview.

Finding a partner in Gabbay, who has sought to focus on social issues in an attempt to move the party away from traditional left-wing security and diplomatic campaign messages, Yachimovitch was appointed opposition leader — Gabbay cannot fulfill the role since he is not a Knesset member — after Livni’s ouster.

MK Shelly Yachimovich speaks during a protest against sexual harassment against women in front of Tel Aviv University on November 19, 2017. (Flash90)

Amir Peretz

Peretz, another former Labor chair who led the party in 2005-2007, is seeking support from party members after they most recently rejected him in favor of Gabbay in the 2017 leadership race.

A Knesset member since 1988, Peretz left Labor in the 1990s to form the Am Ehad party, which merged back with Labor in 2005. In 2012, Peretz abandoned his political home again in favor of Livni’s Hatnua party, which in late 2014 joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union. But in February 2016, two years after he resigned from his post as environmental protection minister in Netanyahu’s government over the budget, Peretz announced that he was returning to Labor.

Peretz has a mixed military legacy: As defense minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Peretz — who had little significant military experience before assuming the post — was strongly criticized by the government-appointed Winograd Commission, though he has since attempted to reframe the narrative in his favor. He is also, however, crediting with approving the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

While seen as somewhat of a dinosaur by some younger members of the party, his experience, both as a minister and a party veteran, have repeatedly helped place him high on the slate, an achievement he is seeking to repeat on Monday.

Candidate leader of Labour party Amir Peretz holds a press conference after passing to the second round of the labour primaries, in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Omer Barlev

MK Omer Barlev, a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in the IDF, is running on a platform that promises to “bring back security to the Labor party.”

Barlev, who holds the rank of colonel and had a career in high-tech companies before he was elected to the Knesset in 2013, has frequently called out the government for what he describes as security failures. But he is also one of the few Labor candidates to vehemently criticize Israeli presence in the West Bank and call uncompromisingly for a two-state solution, saying last year that Israel was moving closer to “apartheid” every day.

Stirring controversy, Barlev in December 2015 — amid rumors of an upcoming visit — branded then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “racist” who should not be welcome in Israel’s parliament.

Another failed candidate in the bruising 2017 leadership race, critics have noted that despite some four years in parliament Barlev has had little impact and have accused him of lacking charisma. Barlev, in response, has pointed to his work on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, saying most of his efforts remain behind the scenes.

Zionist Union MK Omer Barlev attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 13, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eitan Cabel

The most fierce critic of Gabbay has been veteran lawmaker Eitan Cabel, who entered the Knesset as a Labor MK in 1996 and has remained with the party ever since.

Speaking at the party conference last month, Cabel openly called for Gabbay to be removed in order to prevent the party from disappearing.

“I admit, I made a mistake. We all made a mistake. I made a mistake when I supported you,” Cabel told the seething hall, to a roar of disapproval from what seemed like a slight majority among the activists there.

He claimed the party leader had threatened to bring Labor down if its leaders failed to support him, a claim Gabbay denied. Cabel also said he had taken a lie-detector test to prove he was telling the truth, and that the results in his hand were evidence that Gabbay had indeed made the threat.

While his attacks on Gabbay have gained him support among many Labor members, others point to his past changing allegiances within the party and suggest his latest moves are nothing but pandering to primary voters.

Cabel has been a regular feature of Labor’s top 10 list for a decade and a half. This time that may not be enough.

Labor MK Eitan Cabel gives a speech at event in Tel Aviv launching the opposition party’s election campaign on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
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