Voting Monday in his party’s primary to decide its electoral slate, Labor chairman Avi Gabbay promised that the candidates elected to the top spots would be contenders for ministerial positions, despite dismal polling predicting just a handful of seats for the party in April’s general election.
“This is a day of celebration. A day of democracy in the Labor Party,” Gabbay told journalists outside the central polling station at the Tel Aviv convention center. “Today we are choosing the best team for the next Knesset and government.”
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. With latest polls placing it dangerously close to the electoral threshold, the primary is being seen by some in the party as a last chance to save it from oblivion, and activists were hoping that a final slate of popular and dynamic candidates can revitalize it in the next two months of election campaigning.
“I am sure that the primaries will be a turning point thanks to the election of a strong and cohesive team that will show itself on the field and fight for the ideals of the Labor Party,” said MK Itzik Shmuli before casting his vote shortly after Gabbay.
Shmuli, who is vying for a top slot on the list, said he believed that “this time the party members will elect me to the highest echelons of the slate.”
Casting her vote in Tel Aviv’s Beit Sokolov, MK Merav Michaeli called on party members to vote for a strong list “so that together we can fight to replace the government in April.”
From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m, some 60,000 voters were eligible to cast their ballots at 84 polling stations across the country. Party members can choose eight to 10 of the 44 candidates running, who will then be ranked according to the votes and placed on the slate in various national and district slots, as well as reserved places for certain minority groups.
With recent polls indicating that Labor could win as few as five seats in the April elections, candidates face slim chances of snagging a realistic spot. The district candidates, who will be placed on the slate from the 14th spot and on, are not considered likely to have any chance of being elected to the Knesset.
To make matters more difficult, the second spot on the list is reserved for an outsider of Gabbay’s choice — though it is not clear he will utilize that right — and the fourth is reserved for a woman.
Only 14 of the 24 MKs who entered the Knesset with the party in the 2015 elections are even competing for slots on this year’s slate. They are joined by a number of high-profile new additions: Yair Fink, former head of the community activist NGO “Good Neighbor” and a former chief of staff to party veteran MK Shelly Yachimovich; broadcaster Emilie Moatti; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the 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 Israeli Labor Party was formed in 1968 in a merger of three parties, one of which was David Ben Gurion’s Mapai party, which was founded in 1930. In the years leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Mapai was the de facto leadership of the Jewish community and played a key role in the creation of the state.
The past 16 years, however, have been a downward spiral for the party as the public has grown disillusioned with Labor’s moderate message of peace. The party has vacillated between meekly opposing a string of hawkish governments and serving as a junior partner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in what critics saw as a feeble attempt to cling to power.
The latest and perhaps most severe threat to Labor has come in the form of 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.
Labor says that after the primary results, which are expected to trickle in Monday night and early Tuesday morning, it will turn its attention to trying to win those voters back.