The newly elected leader of Israel’s troubled Labor Party, Amir Peretz, said Saturday in a meeting in the northern Arab city of Tamra that racism in the country would end after September’s elections.
“The demon of racism will be eliminated and will not be part of a democratic Israel after the upcoming elections,” said Peretz, who led Labor from 2005 to 2007. “Today begins our joint campaign. The racists will remain outside the Knesset.”
The far-right anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit party failed to enter the Knesset after the April elections, despite joining the Union of Right-Wing Parties in a deal brokered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as its candidates were not high enough on the list to gain seats. It remains unclear if it will run as part of the faction in the September 17 elections.
On Thursday, Otzma Yehudit launched its campaign with leader Michael Ben Ari calling to “resettle our enemies in their countries.” The party says it supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.
Peretz spoke at the Saturday meeting about strengthening ties with the Arab community in Israel and presented to the group his ideas for addressing the community’s problems. Only a large Labor Party would be able to effectively combat racism and create equality in Israel, he said.
“I chose this place for our first election meeting because for me and for Labor, you are our full partners, not only potential voters,” Peretz said.
Around 80 members of the community came to hear Peretz speak, the Walla news site reported.
The meeting came after a week of widespread protests against perceived racism after an off-duty police officer shot dead 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah on June 30.
Peretz was elected Tuesday with 47 percent of party members’ votes, beating out Stav Shaffir (26.9%) and Itzik Shmuli (26.3%). Some 30,000 Labor members, 46% of eligible voters, participated in the primary. The position of party chief was opened when Avi Gabbay announced he would step down following the party’s poor showing in April and after entertaining an offer by Netanyahu to join his prospective coalition, a move met with heavy internal criticism.
Peretz will face an uphill battle to bring his party back to relevance in a crowded center-left field. The once venerable faction won a dismal six of the 120-seat Knesset in the April elections. Labor in recent years has seen its fortunes sink amid infighting, near-constant leadership changes and a slew of other parties challenging its ground on the center-left.
There has been much speculation about potential center-left alliances between the parties in a bid to strengthen their electoral prowess, though its leaders will be closely following internal polling on whether such joint bids will provide them a net gain of votes or whether the sum of their parts is actually greater than any potential whole.
The same surveys showed a Joint Arab List winning nine or 12 seats.
Peretz, 67, a former defense minister, said Wednesday he had a program that would lift Labor to 15 seats when Israel next goes to the polls. On Thursday, he said he was willing to do whatever it takes to create a large leftist bloc, including stepping aside to let ex-prime minister Ehud Barak lead a joint slate of their two parties.
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 Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, which in late 2014 joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union.
But in February 2016 Peretz announced that he was returning to Labor.
Israelis went to the polls on April 9, and 65 of the 120 MKs who were elected then recommended Netanyahu as premier. However, over the subsequent weeks of talks, Netanyahu failed to negotiate a majority coalition, with Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman refusing to join because he was not given a guarantee that a bill regulating the drafting of ultra-Orthodox males into the Israeli military would be passed in its current form.
Rather than allow another MK the opportunity to try to form a majority coalition, Netanyahu successfully pushed for the dissolution of the Knesset on May 30, setting another election for September 17.