Michaeli expected to hold onto Labor leadership in primary — a first in decades

Incumbent expected to easily win Monday’s vote, but underdog challenger Eran Hermoni says Labor needs to shift to the center if it wants to be a ‘ruling party’ again

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Labor leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli attends a press conference at the new Allenby underground station, part of Tel Aviv's developing light rail system, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Labor leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli attends a press conference at the new Allenby underground station, part of Tel Aviv's developing light rail system, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Labor leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli is expected to coast to victory in her party’s leadership primary on Monday, which would make her the first Labor chief since the 1980s to be reelected to the position for a consecutive term.

Although party sources say a Michaeli victory is anticipated, her self-proclaimed “underdog” challenger — party secretary general Eran Hermoni — said that he is mounting his campaign because he thinks Labor has drifted too far to the left and would have a shot at regaining its status as a “ruling party” if it rebalanced towards the center.

“Diplomatically and security-wise, we’ve been carried too left. We need to move more to the center,” Hermoni told The Times of Israel in a Sunday phone interview, adding that the political center is Labor’s “natural place.”

As one of a handful of Israeli political parties that open their candidate list to voter input, Labor will hold a separate primary for the rest of its Knesset roster on August 9, in anticipation of general elections scheduled for November 1. Michaeli would make history if she holds on to power in the vote, which no Labor leader has done since Shimon Peres in the 1980s — though Ehud Barak returned to lead the party in 2007 after an earlier stint.

Last year, Michaeli brought Labor back into the coalition and, as she has said repeatedly, managed to maintain party discipline within her 7-seat faction despite ideological challenges in the big tent political alliance — until it ultimately crumbled last month. She also claims to have brought energy into her role as transportation minister, putting an emphasis on refreshing public transportation and associated infrastructure.

“A little over a year ago, the Labor Party faced wipeout by those who were prepared to give it up as a political mess of pottage,” Michaeli wrote in a Sunday statement.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I am proud to serve as leader of the party and to rebuild it to fulfill its unique mission as the ruling party of the center-left, and I promise to continue to work so that it plays a leading role in Israeli politics,” she wrote.

“The Labor Party has proven its importance in the leadership of the state over the past year and has proven its stability. We must continue to build Labor as a responsible, Zionist and modern political force as I have led it, together with my faction and party partners, over the past year,” her statement continued.

Hermoni, however, suggests that Michaeli has not adequately distinguished Labor ideologically from the left-wing Meretz.

“With security issues, I think we went through a process that took us too left and more toward Meretz,” he said. Specifically, the Labor secretary general said that security concerns have captured too little of the Labor agenda.

“We don’t deal with these issues enough,” he said. “My vision is that the Labor party will return to the standing of a ruling party,” he added.

“Merav’s perspective borders on connecting in every direction,” he claimed. “I want to be more in the center.”

Labor Secretary General Eran Hermoni (Courtesy)

A source close to Hermoni specified that this means moving toward Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party as well as the centrist Blue and White — a move currently complicated by the latter’s recent alliance with right-wing party New Hope.

Moving towards the center would place Labor more squarely in contest with these larger parties. Hermoni said that he wanted to pull away from vying with Meretz.

“It’s not healthy for Meretz and Labor to compete for the same audience,” Hermoni said. He predicted that “once we return to our natural place [in the center],” Meretz would have a better chance of clearing the electoral threshold, which current polls — though they are notoriously unreliable — see it failing to do.

Michaeli, who was not immediately available for comment, seemed to answer some of this criticism on Army Radio Sunday morning, explaining that part of the reason she won’t unite with Meretz — as the parties did ahead of the March 2020 vote — is that not all Labor voters align with the staunch left-wing party.

“The Labor party is a center-left party. There is a range of political opinions and approaches,” Michaeli said. “In the Labor party today, there are many who wouldn’t vote for Meretz. In Meretz, there are those who wouldn’t vote for the Labor party.”

Michaeli has repeatedly stated that she does not plan to unite Labor with Meretz and won’t serve as its life raft to get it over the threshold. Meretz leaders, however, understand their situation and have signaled their interest.

Hermoni said he wouldn’t “disqualify” unification with Meretz, but clarified that a wider center-left bloc would need to be secured before considering it.

The secretary general also said that he opposed the way that Michaeli narrowed the pool of candidates for the party’s slate by pushing a rule that required six months of membership in Labor before running.

“She closed the door for others to come and run,” he said.

If his longshot bid to lead Labor succeeds, Hermoni said he wouldn’t actually headline the party slate. Instead, he would maintain the chairmanship, but recruit an influential public figure to draw votes. Whom, he did not say.

A third expected challenger for Labor leadership, Yaron Gadot, dropped out of the race after failing to complete the required registration steps, including providing a financial deposit, according to a party spokesman.

About 36,000 party members are eligible to vote in primaries on Monday and on August 9, across a range of in person and online voting platforms, according to a party spokesman. Physical voting booths will be available in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

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