The date of the September 12 Labor Party primary was chosen unintentionally, but
it could not be more symbolic. The party that towered over the country it ran
for nearly three decades before it was felled by poor leadership and
unrestrained infighting will begin the process of rebuilding itself under a new
Unless none of the four candidates obtains the 40 percent of the
vote necessary to avoid a September 21 run-off race, Monday could mark the
beginning of the resurrection of the party whose forerunner reached a peak of 56
mandates in the 1969 election and was left with a nadir of eight following its
January 17 split.
The new leader will face the challenging task of
uniting a party divided by the election, bankrupted by years of overspending,
and burdened by its bad image and the unmeetable expectations of its storied
Labor has been leaderless since Ehud Barak and four of his
allies left to form the new Independence Party. The divorce has been helpful to
Barak, who enabled himself to remain defense minister, and to Labor, which
immediately received an influx of young members who were turned off by Barak and
his perceived hedonism.
A party that until recently was seen as a
veritable nursing home looked young and vibrant at Wednesday night’s convention
at Beit Berl Teachers College in Kfar Saba. Young activists in T-shirts bearing
the candidates’ slogans stood up throughout the raucous forum in the packed
auditorium, which was covered with confetti.
While Barak headed Labor,
there were no discussions about the party’s ideology. Its platform hasn’t been
written since Binyamin Ben-Eliezer led the party a decade ago, and its positions
on key issues have been unclear for many years.
Whoever wins will infuse
the party with their spirit and their ideology. All four candidates would put
more of an emphasis on socioeconomic issues, seeking to take political advantage
of the protests over the high cost of living.
MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Amir
Peretz and Isaac Herzog, and former chairman Amram Mitzna all have extensive
social affairs experience on their resumés.
One of the keys to their
success will be whether they can become the political voice of the protesters or
whether they will leave the task to future parties likely to be formed by
journalist Yair Lapid and former Shas leader Arye Deri.
BUT BEFORE any of
the candidates can start thinking about the next general election, they have to
face a primary election that can still go in any one of three
The best-case scenario for the party is that one of the
candidates obtains the necessary 40% to win outright on Monday. Labor would save
the expenditures of another day of voting and be spared the negative attention a
divisive, head-to-head race could bring.
The most likely scenario,
however, is that Yacimovich will face off against Peretz, her political-mentor-
turned-adversary, in a nine-day race that could be nasty. The bad blood between
the two may not result in a second split in the party, but it could leave the
victor permanently scarred and make his or her job of uniting the party even
The third possibility is that between now and Sunday night,
Mitzna will give in to tremendous pressure to quit the race and follow the lead
of venture capitalist Erel Margalit, who exited the contest and endorsed Herzog
Several current and former Labor officials are expected to
warn Mitzna over the weekend that his insistence on remaining in a race that he cannot win could result in him
crowning Yacimovich, whom he slammed in a sparsely attended Jerusalem parlor
meeting this week.
He blasted her for having nothing to say on key issues
like diplomacy, security, education, and the separation of religion and state.
He belittled support for her as “trendy” and compared her to the Pensioners
Party, which won seven seats as a political fad.
“Her record in the
Knesset is impressive, but chairman of the party?” Mitzna asked. “Has she in her
life managed more than two people? If you have a business, do you want the
person who runs it to be someone who has run something in the past? If you have
a fancy car, would you trust it to someone who has never driven before?” Mitzna
said that Yacimovich “has a problem working as a team,” and mocked the age of
the MK, who at 51 is 15 years his junior.
“Little by little,” he said.
“You are a young lady. You still have time.”
Mitzna resisted three weeks
of pressure to back Herzog, and his speech to the convention was especially
defiant, leading Labor officials to believe he will stay in the race until his
bitter end and quit politics as a tragic figure with unmet prime ministerial
On a visit to Yeroham in December, Labor’s elder statesman
Ben- Eliezer urged Mitzna to run, and even said that “only Mitzna can save the
party.” But since then, Ben- Eliezer has maintained neutrality, and he never
gave Mitzna the boost that he needed to win.
One Labor official described
Mitzna as suffering from the trauma of his decisions to quit the Labor
leadership and then the Knesset. The official said the former general wanted to
go down as a fighter and not be remembered as a serial quitter.
explanation is that Mitzna believes that endorsing a candidate would harm his
chances of latching on with another party ahead of the next election. It is
possible that he would rather be Lapid’s No. 2 than Yacimovich’s.
Mitzna surprises and leaves the race on Sunday, Herzog would receive a boost
that could propel him to a second round of voting against either Yacimovich or
Since he lacks the political foes that the two of them have,
Herzog could unite Labor’s leadership against either of them and win.
matter which of the three scenarios plays out, eight months of political
purgatory for the Labor Party will end this month, and its rebuilding will
begin. The test that will determine whether the new leader can succeed will be
whether he or she can unify Labor the way America banded together the day after
September 11 a decade ago.