Labor pains

The Labor Party begins a leadership race – again.

Shelly Yacimovich filming Labor campaign 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Shelly Yacimovich filming Labor campaign 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Some in Israel say the Middle East is inherently unstable.
Regimes come and go. The international community allows dictatorships to slaughter their people. And even what seemed to be the most promising couple, Yehuda Levi and Ninet Tayeb, cannot stay together.
But others here say the Middle East is more stable than credited.
The Assad family has been in control of Syria for more than 40 years.
Ayatollahs have ruled Iran for nearly 35 years. And the Labor Party has leadership primaries again.
At least in Labor, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since Ehud Barak quit politics for the first time following his defeat in the 2001 prime ministerial election, Labor has replaced its leader seven times.
This week, MK Isaac Herzog announced he will challenge incumbent Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich in a primary that will be held November 21. Yacimovich told The Jerusalem Post that this might not even be the last Labor leadership race before the next Knesset election, which is set for November 2017.
When the Post asked Herzog if his run was not adding to Labor’s reputation as a cannibalist party that repeatedly eats its own head, he was unapologetic. He described his candidacy as a matter of justice.
“The party constitution that called for elections within 14 months of losing a general election was changed, so the race could have been held 36 months after the Knesset race,” he said. “She decided unilaterally to ask for elections immediately after the holidays and municipal elections. Once she did, I decided we had to present an alternative.
“It’s not a one-person party where only the leader counts. The party is about its agenda.”
The last Labor race took place in September 2011, when Yacimovich bested her arch rival Amir Peretz, Herzog and Amram Mitzna. The bad blood between Yacimovich and Peretz and the nature of a race with four candidates made it especially brutal.
By contrast, there is no bad blood between Yacimovich and Herzog, who speak regularly and respect each other. There are only two cand i d a t e s because Herzog persuaded MKs Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit to sit the race out, but Herzog credits Yacimovich for enabling his partnership with the two MKs.
“She triggered the process by calling for a quick party convention that we worked together on,” he said.
“We saw we can work together and that we have a common agenda which appeals to the nearly half the party that is looking for someone else to run it.”
Herzog, Margalit and Cabel held private meetings at Herzog’s home, in which they had emotional conversations regarding what bothered them about how the party was being run. They decided not to repeat a mistake made by Mitzna in the last election, in which he refused to endorse any candidate in the second round of voting – and thereby enabled Yacimovich’s victory.
“We agreed that the party lacked feelings of friendship, cooperation and collegiality,” Herzog said. “All of us had polls that showed I had the best chance to beat Shelly. They were gallant enough to come without preconditions and unite behind me.”
But Yacimovich planned in advance for the one-two-three punch the three MKs meted out.
She persuaded other MKs in the party to back her and announce their endorsements shortly after Herzog’s press conference.
Seven of the 12 Labor MKs who intend to endorse candidates are already on Yacimovich’s side, compared to Herzog’s three. The remaining undecided MKs, Itzik Shmuli and Merav Michaeli, are being wooed aggressively by both sides.
Herzog is expected to receive the backing of Histadrut labor federation chief Ofer Eini, who is strong in the party, as well as activists loyal to former Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who will stay neutral in the race because he is running for president.
Yacimovich’s associates said that with all due respect to MKs, the race will be decided by the some 60,000 party members eligible to vote in the primary. The number is low, because she blocked an initiative by Herzog and his allies to permit a membership drive.
“She has gotten very strong in the party,” a source close to Yacimovich said. “In the last race, only a handful of the 200 Labor branch and district heads supported her – and now most of them do. We have a majority of the members. We just need to bring them to vote.”
Another advantage that Yacimovich has that she did not the last time is the backing of the Arab and Druse sectors. Former MK Ghaleb Majadle, who heads the Arab sector, endorsed her. Reports that she promised him a ministry in return were denied.
Yacimovich’s associates predicted that the October 22 municipal elections would strengthen the party and give her a boost. The party is running in more than 80 municipalities, and unlike in past local elections, mostly under its own name.
“Two years ago everyone said the party was dead,” Yacimovich’s chief of staff Yair “Yaya” Fink recalled.
“Now our institutions are alive and kicking, while [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is afraid to convene his [Likud] party convention. And when he did, he did not even attend. It takes time to rebuild the party, but we are on the way there.”
For Fink, a key step in the party’s rehabilitation is restoring its reputation.
To that end, he wants to fight what he says are two destructive myths about the party: That it would join any coalition, and that its leader cannot be re-elected.
“No one believed we would stay out of Netanyahu’s government,” Fink said. “Labor has changed its path on that. Now we will also change our culture of changing leaders every two years. We will let our leader work.
“Just like by not entering the government, we changed our DNA, when we elect a leader twice in a row our DNA will change on that, too – and people will start thinking differently about us.”