Yair Golan wins landslide victory in Labor primary with promise to unite the left

‘We need to build a ruling party and it cannot be a niche party or a small party,’ former general says on being chosen by over 95% of voters

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"

Yair Golan speaks to the media after the results were announced in the Labor party primary elections, in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yair Golan speaks to the media after the results were announced in the Labor party primary elections, in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yair Golan, a former Meretz MK and onetime Israel Defense Forces deputy chief who has pledged to “unify all leftist parties in Israel” into a single bloc, won the Labor party leadership primary on Tuesday evening with 95.15 percent of the vote.

Golan beat longtime Labor activist Azi Nagar (0.77%), billionaire socialist and online gambling magnate Avi Shaked (1.89%), and attorney and anti-corruption activist Itai Leshem (1.76%) by a vast margin — making him the next leader of the beleaguered left-wing party.

Throughout the day, 31,353 Labor members, 60.6% of those eligible, voted in the primary to replace outgoing chairwoman Merav Michaeli, who told The Times of Israel in January that she felt unable to continue to lead the party.

“The question is where do we go from here,” Michaeli said at the time, asserting that if she “had the political answer now I would have continued as Labor chair.”

Michaeli congratulated Golan following his win on Tuesday, tweeting: “Good luck to Yair and the party.”

Yair Lapid, the chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, also congratulated Golan, tweeting that, “Israel needs patriotic public representatives, lovers of the country like Golan. We have a lot of work to do for the country. I wish success to Golan and the Labor party.”

People cast their vote during the Labor primaries, at a polling station in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In an address following his victory, Golan said that “we have to unite everyone, Labor, Meretz, the protest organizations, those disappointed by other parties.”

He said he would immediately put together a negotiation team to work on forming the new leftist alliance.

“We built a glorious country, but today corrupt elements threaten it. We need to build a ruling party and it cannot be a niche party or a small party,” he said.

A former IDF Northern Front and Home Front commander, Golan, 61, now a general in the reserves, was passed over for the position of IDF chief of staff in 2018, after a 2016 speech in which he likened contemporary trends in Israel to the “disturbing processes” that took place in Europe in the run-up to the Holocaust.

He later served as deputy economy minister during the short-lived, ideologically diverse coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Lapid, and then made a failed bid for the leadership of Meretz ahead of the last elections.

Golan made headlines and received accolades last year when he headed to the front lines of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on his own initiative and rescued many partygoers fleeing the massacre at the Supernova rave.

Despite the apparent ease of his landslide victory, Golan has a tough road ahead of him.

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

Outgoing Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, March 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Her decision not to join forces with Meretz was seen as contributing to the latter party’s failure to enter the Knesset, to the detriment of the bloc of parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Repeated polls have shown Labor failing to make it into the Knesset in the next elections.

However, none of the polls ran the scenario of a combined Labor-Meretz slate, which could potentially win more seats than Meretz’s projected four if the party were to run alone.

Addressing an online campaign event in March, Golan said that he had sworn “to reestablish the Zionist left in Israel” and was running in the Labor primary “to unify all leftist parties in Israel, all members of the protest movement who are willing to fight for the destiny of Israel, for Israel as a democratic liberal state.”

This rhetoric garnered him the endorsement of half of Labor’s remaining MKs.

Golan is likely to lead the party “into a sort of new political framework with Meretz, or other segments like parts of the protest movement,” said Prof. Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

“I congratulate my friend Yair Golan on a brilliant victory for the leadership of the party. His victory is the first step in building the great and united democratic camp that will bring great news to the citizens of Israel and the country,” Labor MK Naama Lazimi said in a statement following Golan’s victory.

Labor MK Naama Lazimi, former Meretz MK Yair Golan and Labor MK Gilad Kariv, in a video released March 17, 2024. (Screen grab)

“Now, our role is to continue to build together an alternative of governance and values that will set a new political-security, economic-social and democratic-civil agenda for the State of Israel and take a leading part in its future leadership,” she said.

“The members of the Labor party voted unanimously today in favor of Yair Golan, in favor of uniting forces in the Zionist left and in favor of a way of hope. Tonight we took the first step in the journey to repair and restore the State of Israel and Israeli society,” tweeted Labor MK Gilad Kariv.

Meretz party supporters react as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Flash90)

Speaking with The Times of Israel last week, Meretz secretary general Tomer Reznik said that his party is “ready in principle” to unite and “supports a connection with Labor to run together” in the next legislative election, but that the details need to be worked out following a Golan win.

“After he is elected we can talk,” Reznik said, noting that there had been contacts about the issue, “but nothing official.”

“I think it can be done in a relatively short time, but it takes the political will to do so from both sides and the understanding of the mission ahead of us,” he added.

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