Bad news for Netanyahu?

When the votes are counted on Monday night, the victor will begin an effort to initiate a general election. But he will face an uphill battle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, Co-leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, Co-leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Months of election campaigning, canvassing, and currying favor with voters will culminate on Monday when MK Amir Peretz and former environmental minister Avi Gabbay face off in a runoff for the Labor Party leadership.
The series of elections began April 27 with the Bayit Yehudi primary won by incumbent Naftali Bennett over two long-forgotten candidates. It continued May 23 with the Histadrut labor federation contest between Avi Nissenkorn and MK Shelly Yacimovich, which Nissenkorn won, though Yacimovich is still pursuing a revote in court.
Then came Tuesday’s first round of voting in Labor’s seven-man race, when Peretz and Gabbay won 32.7% and 27.1% of the vote, respectively, earning places in the runoff race. They easily defeated incumbent Isaac Herzog (16.7%), MK Erel Margalit (16.1%), MK Omer Bar Lev (6.9%), Prof. Avner Ben-Zaken (56 votes) and party activist Hod Karubi, who received only eight votes but got his name in the newspapers for two months.
When the votes are counted on Monday night, the victor will begin an effort to initiate a general election. But he will face an uphill battle.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want an election anytime soon. Neither do any of his coalition partners, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is the first to admit that his billboards throughout the country celebrating his Family First Plan are not signs of an imminent election.
The winner will have to appear to push for an election to be held as soon as possible, whether or not it would actually be good for him politically. The truth is he would have an interest in holding out for an expected police recommendation to indict Netanyahu for the expensive gift affair, before really pressuring for an election to be initiated.
Timing of elections has been key for Labor winners, as Channel 2 political correspondent Amit Segal pointed out on Twitter. He wrote that when Peretz was elected Labor leader in November 2005, the first poll predicted he would win 29 seats, and he ended up with 19 in a general election that took place in March 2006.
When Ehud Barak was elected Labor leader in 2007, polls said Labor under his helm would win 25 seats, but he ended up with 13 when they were held in 2009. Herzog won only 12 seats in his first poll as Labor leader in 2013, but won 24 two years later.
One poll taken after the first round of voting predicted 18 seats for either Gabbay or Peretz. Another said Peretz would win 15 and Gabbay 14. While more polls will undoubtedly be taken after the runoff, it is unlikely that they would indicate that the winner would pose a serious threat to Netanyahu and his Likud Party.
Nevertheless, the election will likely be remembered as bad news for the prime minister. How can that be? Here are the winners and losers of the first round of the Labor race:
Amir Peretz
The man with the mustache was seen as the ultimate outsider when he defeated Shimon Peres and the Labor establishment in 2005. Now the shoe is on Gabbay’s foot, and Peretz is the establishment candidate.
While his strength remains in the periphery, he is supported by dozens of current and former Labor MKs and has the backing of the kibbutzniks and other Ashkenazi elites who were deterred by him a dozen years ago.
When Netanyahu wanted to mock the race, he said “I understand that Amir Peretz is running today in the Histadrut... oysh, sorry, the Labor Party.” Peretz took the joke too seriously and said that Netanyahu was sweating over the possibility of him becoming Labor leader. He’s not. But when Netanyahu thinks of Labor, he thinks of Peretz, and that is a step in the right direction.
Avi Gabbay
He came from out of nowhere and was totally unknown when he helped Kahlon build Kulanu. He was then appointed a minister, and when he quit the cabinet, he held a press conference on a Friday, and barely anyone came.
But Gabbay learned to channel his anonymity and appeal to the appetite for change in the Labor Party. He also worked hard, getting to know Labor members all over the country, little by little.
When French President Emmanuel Macron won on May 7, Gabbay noted that “a few months ago he was anonymous to the public in France,” and said “Macron’s success in the election shows the public’s desire to vote for someone who represents a new hope: look at Trudeau in Canada and Theresa May in England. The public is tired of the old and disgusting politics, and wants new candidates who come to politics with real tools to change and improve the public system for the public good.”
Whether Labor members agree will be revealed on Monday night.
Moroccans in Israel
Peretz was born in Casablanca, Morocco. Gabbay’s parents moved from Morocco before he was born. He lived as a child in a ma’abara (absorption camp) in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, where he was the seventh of eight children.
Journalist and former Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon told The Jerusalem Post it was a miracle that the same Labor Party whose forerunner 70 years ago debated whether to allow Moroccans to make aliya or make them face selection was now crowning them as their candidate for prime minister.
Ben-Simon noted that when Peretz defeated Peres, half the party fled to Kadima, because the time wasn’t ripe. But he said “sometimes time heals what human beings cannot.” He said it was symbolic that the founding party of Israel is giving its crown to the sons of Moroccan absorption, and it could change voting patterns in Israel, where Sephardi immigrants tend to vote Likud.
Yair Lapid
But perhaps the voting patterns won’t change. In that case, Lapid had to privately celebrate the defeat of Herzog, who took away seats from him in the 2015 election, and Margalit, who could have done the same in the next race.
Whatever remains of the Ashkenazi elite that still won’t support a candidate from Morocco will turn to Lapid, who did very well in Wednesday’s polls. It was also good for Lapid that Herzog lost, because there would have been pressure on him to join a bloc of parties that Herzog wanted to create and Lapid wanted no part of.
If the winner of Monday’s race fails to build himself up, Lapid’s Yesh Atid will be the alternative to Netanyahu in the next election. That doesn’t mean he would be able to form a government, but at least he could be the unquestioned leader of the opposition.
Isaac Herzog
In retrospect, Herzog was very wise in twice delaying the Labor leadership race, knowing that his defeat was probably inevitable. That was how he managed to last four years, which was longer than his predecessors.
As has been printed ad nauseam, Labor hasn’t reelected a leader since before it adopted the primary system in 1992. Several media outlets in Israel have even compared Labor’s head chopping to Islamic State, and the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s political correspondent called it a party of cannibals.
Part of Herzog’s platform was changing Labor’s bylaws, so that will stop happening. When the Post asked Peretz in a press conference Wednesday whether he would adopt Herzog’s idea, he gave an interesting answer.
“The time a party leader serves depends on how he is seen by the public,” he said. “When a leader loses his stature, it doesn’t matter if he is guilty or not. I lost because the Second Lebanon War was seen negatively, unlike now, so the party needed to replace me.”
Since neither Peretz nor Gabbay will change those bylaws, their longevity in the party is limited if they don’t lead it to victory in a general election. And as for Herzog, he is not going anywhere, and he could be elected in 2021 to the job his father, Chaim Herzog, had: president of Israel.
Erel Margalit
Margalit turned many Labor members off when he blasted Herzog for his efforts to join Netanyahu’s government and initiate a peace process, painted Peretz as corrupt, tried to embarrass Gabbay for having voted for Likud and wrongly suggested that Gabbay did not know English.
Margalit also lost because this was an election in which Labor rejected its Ashkenazi elitist background. This was not the time for a successful venture capitalist to sweep Labor off its feet.
It is likely that Margalit will run again, but there are only so many times you can do that without turning too many people off. Margalit was nothing but a winner in business, before having less good fortune in politics. The loser label does not fit him, but it is what it is.
Moshe Kahlon
The leader of the self-proclaimed only socioeconomic party in the Knesset had to be privately rooting for a candidate who would put diplomatic or security issues first.
With Peretz or Gabbay at the helm of Labor, they will be able to grab some of the support enjoyed by Kulanu in the last election. If Gabbay wins, he can say that he helped form Kulanu, but it did not meet his expectations.
Now there is more reason for Kahlon to do everything possible to avoid an early election, even if it means serving under a prime minister the police recommended indicting.
Benjamin Netanyahu
The honeymoon is over for Netanyahu. There will be a much stronger opposition in the Knesset if Peretz replaces Herzog as opposition leader. He said his first step would be to try to dissolve the Knesset and then form a shadow government in the opposition.
Gabbay said he would keep Herzog on the job, but also said that under him, the party would start fighting for real. He said he would assign all of the party’s MKs to start campaigning in different regions and cities.
Netanyahu will no longer be able to threaten insubordinate MKs in the coalition that he could bring in Labor under Herzog. He also won’t be able to claim he can break up the Zionist Union and bring part of it into the coalition.
So even though Labor does not pose an immediate threat to Netanyahu, and won’t if it doesn’t build a serious bloc ahead of the next general election, he still could look back at this race as a game-changer that led to him having plenty of headaches.