Labor Focuses on Ousting Netanyahu as It Heads for Runoff

  • Herzog leaves post as Labor’s chairman after coming in third
  • Runoff seen as ‘defining moment’ for the party’s future

Two politicians of Moroccan ancestry will meet in a runoff to lead Israel’s Labor Party, an unprecedented showdown in the European-rooted movement that’s struggled to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu and reclaim its former standing as the country’s defining force.

Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and labor federation head, will compete Monday against Avi Gabbay, ex-chief executive officer of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company, for the chance to head Labor’s slate in the next national election, scheduled for November 2019. Peretz was already talking Wednesday about that next contest.

Amir Peretz

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

“We are getting ready to conclude the campaign, win decisively and become the party’s candidate for prime minister,” he said in Tel Aviv. “Netanyahu should start worrying.”

Peretz drew 33 percent of votes in Tuesday’s first round, according to results announced by party officials, followed by Gabbay with 27 percent. Incumbent Isaac Herzog came third with 17 percent, losing his post as party chairman. Venture capitalist Erel Margalit, a member of parliament, trailed with 16 percent.

The contest is between Labor’s “old socialist guard and a professional in business management and efficiency,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster and former aide to Netanyahu. “It’s very much a defining moment as to how Labor sees its future.”

‘Safe Hands’

It offers Peretz, 65, another chance at running for prime minister after he led Labor to second-place in 2006 and entered a government led by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Gabbay, 50, the former CEO of Bezeq The Israeli Telecommunication Corp., resigned last year as environmental protection minister under Netanyahu to protest the firing of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Labor’s roots stretch back well before Israel’s founding in 1948, and it produced the nation’s first five prime ministers. Though it grew out of the socialist movement, over time the party came to be seen as elitist and dominated by Israelis of European ancestry. In 1977 it lost power to the conservative Likud Party, which had the support of working-class Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin. The last Labor premier was Ehud Barak, who served less than two years and was unseated in 2001.

Barak on Wednesday came out in support of Gabbay, calling him a refreshing change from Israel’s usual politics, a man “who doesn’t need gel in his hair or a teleprompter.” Peretz “belongs to the past decade,” Barak said in a video on his Facebook page, while Gabbay “belongs to the coming decade.”

Whoever wins the runoff will represent a radical change from Herzog, an attorney whose grandfather served for decades as Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and whose father was the country’s president. Peretz immigrated from Morocco as a child and got his start in politics as mayor of Sderot, a hardscrabble town in Israel’s south that’s a frequent target of Palestinian rocket attacks.

Lacking Credentials

Gabbay was born in Jerusalem to parents who also arrived from Morocco, but hasn’t placed his ancestry at the center of the campaign.

“People know where he’s from but he doesn’t make a big deal about it,” a strategy that could help his chances, said Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “He’s known as a serious guy with a lot of business experience and that distinguishes him in the poisonous political climate we’ve seen in recent years.”

What Peretz and Gabbay both lack are the military credentials to reassure Israelis worried about security threats from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, said Jonathan Rynhold, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

“Labor does not have a candidate who crosses the minimum threshold in terms of security to be a serious threat to Netanyahu,” he said.

Peretz pushed Israel’s development of the Iron Dome defense system that has neutralized missiles from the Gaza Strip, but his performance as defense minister in the 2006 Lebanon War was severely criticized by a government commission and Israelis don’t see him as “a safe pair of hands,” Rynhold said. Gabbay served in the army as an intelligence officer.

Outside of Labor, those jockeying to replace Netanyahu include Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party and Yair Lapid, a former journalist who founded the opposition Yesh Atid party and served as finance minister in Netanyahu’s previous government. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, an opponent of Palestinian statehood, also has voiced aspirations to become premier.

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