The Israeli Labor party’s leadership primary election will be held on 3 July, it was announced last week. Isaac Herzog, the current party chairman who is standing for re-election, is expected to be joined by up to seven candidates in the contest. The Labor party – the senior partner in the Zionist Union faction which acts as Israel’s principal opposition grouping in the Knesset – faces many of the difficulties with which western social democratic countries are currently confronted.
These are, however, overlaid by a series of tests arising from the conflict with the Palestinians. While the issues of terrorism and security are not unique to Israel, the country’s left has long faced a political landscape which is, perhaps, particularly challenging. That landscape helps explain why Labour has won only two general elections in the past 25 years: in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was swept to power and, seven years later, when Ehud Barak unseated Benjamin Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister’s rocky first three-year stint in power. Labor has had, on average, a new leader once every two years since 1995. The primary election was automatically triggered by the party’s loss of the general election two years ago.
While Labor is currently struggling in the opinion polls, Herzog will be able to point during the primaries to the party’s strong performance under his leadership in the 2015 election. Although failing to defeat Netanyahu, Labor ended up winning 24 seats, its best showing at the polls since Barak’s victory in 1999. Hezog’s task in opposition over the past two years has been complicated by on-off negotiations with Netanyahu about Labor’s possible entry into the governing coalition. With a wafer-thin majority (which was boosted somewhat by the addition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party last May), the Israeli prime minister has been keen to woo Labor; not least because this would weaken the pressure on him exerted by the coalition’s hard-right elements.
Some of Herzog’s internal critics oppose any potential deal with Netanyahu. The Labor leader, however, has left the door open, while attempting to drive a hard bargain. Over the weekend, a leaked draft of a planned statement that he and Netanyahu had planned to release as part of the formation of a government of national unity last autumn was published in the Israeli media.
The two were reported to have been planning a summit with the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders to launch a new regional peace initiative. In the statement, Netanyahu and Herzog would have welcomed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, underlined their commitment to “two states for two peoples” and declared that Israel “extends its hand to the Palestinians to begin direct, bilateral negotiations without preconditions”.
Netanyahu is said to have eventually taken fright and backed out of the deal, fearing reaction on the Israeli right. The runners and riders in the Labor primary come from both the party’s left and right and feature both new faces and old hands. Amir Peretz, who led the party between 2005-7, was the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring last December. A former defence minister, he is credited with overseeing the introduction of the Iron Dome missile system. Last weekend, two other contenders formally joined the race.
Omer Barlev, a one-time head of an elite IDF brigade who was involved in the 1976 raid on Entebbe, promised “courageous leadership”, while Avi Gabbay – a minister in Netanyahu’s government until last May, when he quit over Lieberman’s appointment as defence minister – pledged to “transform [Labor] from a party with correct principles to a party that win elections”. Formerly a member of the centre-right Kulanu party, Gabbay joined Labour last December.
Three other candidates are also expected to join the primary race: lawyer and left-wing activist Eldad Yaniv; Eitan Cabel, a long-serving MK and ally of former party leader Shelly Yachimovich; and Erel Margalit, a hi-tech and social entrepreneur, whose combative style (he led an anti-Netanyahu rally under the slogan: “Give us back our country, damn it”) is said to concern Likud strategists. But the name of the man – and, at present, no female contenders are tipped to stand – chosen by Labor to go head-to-head with Netanyahu may not emerge on 3 July. If no candidate passes the 40 percent threshold, there will a second round 10 days later.