Labor top 20

Social protest leaders Shmuli, Shaffir take top spots in Labor primaries

Gabbay rival Cabel drops to 15th on slate, likely to miss out on return to Knesset since sinking party only expected to garner 5-7 seats

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

MK Itzik Shmuli casts his vote at a Labor Party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
MK Itzik Shmuli casts his vote at a Labor Party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Two former leaders of the 2011 social protest movement, Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, took top spots in the Labor primary election Tuesday night as the party prepared its slate ahead of a projected drubbing in April’s Knesset election.

Some 33,771 party members voted for the electoral slate, with only the top handful of vote-getters expected to make it into the Knesset.

Shmuli and Shaffir will be placed third and fourth on the final slate behind party chairman Avi Gabbay and a candidate of his choice who he can appoint to the number two slot. Shuli received 28,865 votes while Shaffir followed closely behind with 25,775.

Their high placing is seen as a vote for a younger generation of leadership for the party. Labor is currently set to score its lowest ever election result, with polls predicting it getting only five to seven seats.

Behind Shaffir came former leaders Shelly Yachimovich in third place with 23, 278 votes, and Amir Peretz in fourth with 23,113. Merav Michaeli came in fifth, Omer Bar Lev sixth, followed by MK Revital Swid, newcomer Yair Fink, MK Michal Biran and another rookie Gavri Bargil.

Eitan Cabel, Gabbay’s most vocal intra-party rival, followed Bargil to take the 11th spot. When taking into consideration various spots reserved for the chairman and his choices, Cabel drops to 15th on the final slate (see full list below).

Voting took place in 84 polling stations across the country, opening at 10 a.m. and kept open an half an hour past the scheduled 9.00 p.m. close due to “long lines” in several cities. Party members could choose eight to 10 of the 44 candidates running in both the national and district spots on the slate.

The final turnout was 56.4 percent of some 60,000 party members. In the 2015 election, turnout reached 61%.

Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich outside the Labor party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Shmuli and Shaffir entered the Knesset in 2013 after making a name for themselves as leaders of the 2011 social protests. Both used their primary campaign to offer a youthful hope to return the party to lost-prominence.

A former chair of the National Union of Israeli Students, 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.

Having sat on the powerful Knesset Finance Committee and currently chairing the parliament’s Transparency Committee, Shaffir, 33, has established herself as an outspoken opponent of economic inequality and advocate of transparency in government.

MK Stav Shaffir seen outside the Labor Party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

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. But it still won 24 seats (in an alliance with the small Hatnua faction) in the 2015 elections, compared to the winning Likud’s 30 seats. Its support has collapsed since then, surveys show, under the leadership of Gabbay.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, speaks with the media before the release of the results in the Labor Party primaries in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The primary was 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.

Launching its election campaign at the results event, the party declared in its new campaign slogan, “No one will move us out the way.”

As polls closed, Gabbay tweeted, “Democracy lives. From here we begin the momentum of change.”

Only 14 incumbent MKs of 24 who entered the Knesset with the party in the 2015 ran in the primaries. They were joined by a number of high-profile new additions: Fink, former head of the community activist NGO “Good Neighbor” and a former chief of staff to party veteran MK Yachimovich; broadcaster Emilie Moatti; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel; and Michal Zernowitski, an up-and-coming party activist who has headed Labor’s ultra-Orthodox branch.

The current nadir follows one of Labor’s greatest recent successes, when it garnered 24 seats in the 2015 election after its leader Isaac Herzog joined forces with the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party to form the Zionist Union.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay (L) announces the shock break up of the Zionist Union as his erstwhile partner, head of opposition Tzipi Livni, looks on, during a party faction meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Gabbay recently dumped Livni on live TV as she sat by his side, without having been given advance notice. The move has not gone down well with potential voters.

Polls forecast Livni’s Hatnua failing to gain the 3.25% of votes necessary to enter the Knesset.

While horse-race polls are an almost daily occurrence in Israel in the months leading up to elections and are not seen as overly reliable, taken together the surveys can often serve as a general gauge of the political climate and where the vote may be headed.

In the wake of Livni’s ouster and the subsequent dive in the polls, some Labor members, including long-time lawmaker Cabel, sought unsuccessfully to oust Gabbay.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Labor has been the establishment of several new parties.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s new Israel Resilience party, which polls predict will draw significant votes away from Labor and other center-left parties, is forecast to receive 36 seats if it unites with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, or 22 seats if it runs alone.

The top 20 Labor candidates for the April 9, 2019 elections, as selected in party primaries on February 11, 2019:

1. Avi Gabbay
2. Reserved for a candidates chosen by the chairman
3. Itzik Shmuli
4. Stav Shaffir
5. Shelly Yachimovich
6. Amir Peretz
7. Merav Michaeli
8. Omer Barlev
9. Revital Swid
10. Reserved for a candidates chosen by the chairman
11. Eran Harmoni (reserved for party director)
12. Yair Fink
13. Michal Biran
14. Gavri Barjil
15. Eitan Cabel
16. Reserved for a candidates chosen by the chairman
17. Salah Saadi
18. Emilie Moatti
19. Leah Fadida
20. Henrika Zimmerman (reserved for a representative from the Northern district)

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