Weakened Labor announces May primary to replace lame duck Merav Michaeli

Labor must be ‘ready and strong’ for next elections, says outgoing party chief; primary structured to prevent talk of merger with other left-wing factions, complains MK Gilad Kariv

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 29, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 29, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Labor party announced on Sunday that it will hold a leadership contest this spring to replace outgoing chairwoman Merav Michaeli, as the party struggles to revitalize the once dominant but now marginal left-wing movement.

“The State of Israel is in a great crisis and elections are required, bringing new leadership for our people. The Labor party has an important role in the rebuilding of the State of Israel and it must get there ready and strong,” Michaeli, who announced her pending resignation last December, said in a statement.

The party set a deadline for May 5 for members to register their candidacy ahead of the vote slated for May 28. The party claims it will hold the “most advanced” and transparent primary in Israel, featuring both online voting and public debates.

While unlikely to change, the plan still requires the approval of the party conference.

In what appears to be a bid to encourage new blood to join Labor, which currently has only four seats in the Knesset, non-members wishing to mount a leadership challenge have until May 1 to join the party and May 5 to announce their candidacies. Those wishing to join in order to vote in the primaries will have to sign up by May 18.

“The elections for the leadership of the Labor party will be the most advanced, they will be conducted online and will be open and broad in order to fully realize their potential to strengthen and enlarge the party and the camp,” stated Labor chief executive Nir Rosen.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli, center, with Labor party MKs Gilad Kariv, second from right, and Naama Lazimi, left, after the results of the Labor party primaries were announced, in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Before the primaries, we will have a large membership recruitment campaign, as well as a series of public debates between the candidates, as happens in democratic parties around the world,” Rosen added.

Despite the announcement, not everybody in the party responded positively to the plan, even though the party’s MKs have been vehement in their opposition to Michaeli’s continued tenure at Labor’s head.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, widely seen as a possible contender for the leadership, tweeted that “unfortunately” Michaeli’s announcement appears to have been made to prevent the party from voting on “the unification of forces on the Zionist left and the holding of joint primaries for the leadership of the bloc.”

“This is a direct continuation of the refusal to hold any discussion in the party institutions on this issue during the last year,” Kariv tweeted, arguing for the necessity of unifying the left as “a clear alternative to the nationalist right and the zigzag center.”

After taking over the party from Amir Peretz in 2021, Michaeli managed to increase Labor’s representation in the Knesset to seven seats, but the improvement in its standing was short-lived and, under her leadership, Labor shrank to the Knesset minimum of four seats in the November 2022 election.

Her decision not to join forces with the left-wing Meretz party led to its failure to enter the Knesset as a result, to the detriment of the bloc of parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since then, Labor has consistently failed to cross the election threshold in periodic, though unreliable, polling.

Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon casts her vote at a voting station in Bnei Brak, during the Knesset elections on November 1, 2022. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Internal discontent with Michaeli continued to mount last year when Labor’s other three lawmakers decided to take steps against her with the goal of eventually pushing her out of the party.

The MKs — Kariv, Efrat Rayten and Naama Lazimi — decided to force Michaeli to obtain their agreement before making any decisions, eroding her authority as leader of the center-left party. They claimed that Michaeli had lost the remaining public legitimacy she had and was dooming the party, which led Israel for the first three decades of its existence.

Rayten subsequently announced she would run to replace Michaeli.

In response, Michaeli announced in early December that the party would hold an internal vote for a new leader within four months.

Asked whether she regretted not allying herself with Meretz, Michaeli told The Times of Israel in January that while the “failure of the anti-Netanyahu bloc is indeed very distressing,” she felt that she had made “the right decision at the time” — one which had been “backed completely by the faction and by the party.”

However, she also stated that she felt she was no longer the best person to lead the party, asserting that “if I had the political answer now I would have continued as Labor chair.”

“That’s why I’m stepping down, so it’s now up to new forces to come on board and be able to do this,” she explained at the time. “I’m so invested in the process of primaries now because I want it to be something that will elevate the party and allow us really to attract as many more good people that are out there and are considering [entering] politics.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to losing her position at the head of the party, Michaeli may potentially be forced out of Labor entirely, after a party court last week ordered the beginning of an impeachment process against her.

According to Hebrew media reports, the internal tribunal ruled that Michaeli had “exceeded her authority” in supporting a Meretz candidate for mayor of the city of Bat Yam despite it having previously ruled that she was not authorized to do so.

Last Sunday, former lawmaker and ex-public security minister Omer Barlev, who fell from second place on the party slate to ninth in the last Labor primary, appeared to confirm he is heading toward a run for the leadership of the Labor party, after widespread speculation on the issue.

Barlev had a rocky term as minister responsible for the Israel Police, which was the subject of a number of scandals under his leadership, from claims regarding the use of phone hacking tech to allegations that officers failed to respond speedily to a terror attack.

“I’m thinking about it. Running for the leadership of Labor is the leading option,” he told Army Radio last week.

Times of Israel staff and Carrie-Keller Lynn contributed to this report.

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