Peretz, Gabbay court Labor heavyweights ahead of runoff
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Peretz, Gabbay court Labor heavyweights ahead of runoff

Tuesday's two victors sit down with ousted leader Herzog; endorsed by Histadrut labor union chief, Peretz promises 'new welfare state'

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Labor party leadership candidate Amir Peretz (C) with Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn and Labor MKs at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor party leadership candidate Amir Peretz (C) with Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn and Labor MKs at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Vowing to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, Labor leadership candidates Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay on Wednesday raced to seek endorsements and woo high-level party members ahead of the final round of voting on Monday.

In Tuesday’s first-round vote, which saw incumbent Labor chairman Isaac Herzog removed from the running, Peretz finished in the lead with 32 percent (10,141 votes), followed by newcomer Gabbay with 27% (8,395), with a turnout of 59%.

The two men were fighting on Wednesday over the 41% of Labor voters who had picked candidates Herzog and MKs Erel Margalit and Omer Barlev in the first round.

The two are both of Moroccan extraction, but the similarity ends there: A former Labor leader and defense minister, Peretz is a familiar face in the party with a trade unionist background, while Gabbay — a former CEO of the Bezeq telecommunications giant and non MK minister for the Kulanu party — is a new recruit to the socialist-minded camp.

Labor party candidate Avi Gabbay seen with supporters outside a polling station in Jerusalem on July 4. 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor party candidate Avi Gabbay seen with supporters outside a polling station in Jerusalem on July 4. 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Peretz, a former Histadrut labor union chief, earned the backing of its current chairman, Avi Nissenkorn, on Wednesday, as well as the endorsement of Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli.

“Avi Nissenkorn’s support signals the deep alliance between the Labor party and the working man,” wrote Peretz on Twitter. “Together we will work to establish a new welfare state that puts the citizen at the center.”

During his press conference with Nissenkorn, Peretz also asserted that Netanyahu was concerned about his success in the first-round Labor vote.

“The smell of Bibi’s sweat reached from Jerusalem to Sderot,” said Peretz. “My campaign burns him up.”

Gabbay, meanwhile, was spotted at the home of Herzog on Wednesday morning to drum up his support. A few hours later, Herzog also sat down Peretz, and he has yet to announce who he will endorse.

Should he win in Monday’s race, Gabbay — who is not a sitting MK — cannot replace Herzog as opposition leader. He must pick a lawmaker for that position, and a majority of opposition MKs must approve his choice.

Both Gabbay and Peretz on Wednesday expressed support for continuing the party’s partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, which along with Labor makes up the Zionist Union faction. Livni was set to meet with both candidates as well.

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog arrives with his wife Michal to casts his vote at a polling station in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor party leader Isaac Herzog arrives with his wife Michal to cast his vote at a polling station in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Peretz already received the backing of half a dozen Labor MKs, though some others — such as top Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich — have yet to declare.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Gabbay, a former environmental protection minister for the center-right Kulanu party, played down the results of Tuesday’s vote.

“Let’s put things in perspective: I came in second, not first, in the first round,” Gabbay told Army Radio, calling it a “nice accomplishment” but not a definitive win. “From the first day, I’ve spoken of victory.”

“From the beginning, I’ve been running a positive campaign… I’ve spoken about myself, not about others,” he said. “I intend to continue with a positive campaign.”

Peretz, a former defense minister who led the party as a junior coalition partner under Kadima over a decade ago, has been campaigning vigorously for the post since December.

“I am proud of my accomplishment and am convinced I will win in the second round, after which we will replace Netanyahu,” said Peretz on Tuesday.

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.

In a speech to supporters late Tuesday, he vowed to battle to ensure Labor is able to form a governing coalition in Israel, “not join a coalition” — a reference to intermittent coalition contacts between Herzog and Netanyahu which ultimately led nowhere.

A former environmental protection minister in Netanyahu’s government, Gabbay quit in May 2016, after coalition talks brought the Yisrael Beytenu party into the government. In a dramatic tirade, he accused the coalition of leading Israel on a path to destruction.

The breakout moment for Gabbay, a relatively unknown minister who was not elected to Knesset but rather appointed as an external candidate by party leader Moshe Kahlon, was followed by his crossing the aisle and joining the fight for the Labor leadership.

The primaries come after Labor (even combined with the Hatnua party) has plummeted over the past year in opinion polls, receiving a projected 10-12 seats, 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 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.

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