Israeli Labor Party to Pick Netanyahu Opponent in Primary Runoff

  • Peretz, Gabbay square off in contest to elect Labor chairman
  • Labor tries makeover with two candidates of Moroccan ancestry

Israeli Labor Party members went to the polls Monday for a runoff election between two candidates hoping to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and return the country’s founding movement to power.

Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and labor federation head, is going head to head against Avi Gabbay, ex-chief executive officer of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company, Bezeq The Israeli Telecommunication Corp., for the chance to head Labor’s slate in the next national election, scheduled for November 2019. Commentators have given Peretz the edge.

Peretz drew 33 percent of the votes cast July 4 among seven candidates in Labor’s first round, followed by Gabbay with 27 percent. Incumbent Isaac Herzog came third with 17 percent, losing his post as party chairman. A Channel 2 poll immediately after that vote showed a bleak outcome for the party in a national election no matter who would head it: Netanyahu’s Likud would win nearly twice the number of parliamentary seats as Labor, positioning the incumbent prime minister -- who’s served longer than any other Israeli leader besides founding father David Ben-Gurion -- to head the government.

Other Rivals

Outside of Labor, Netanyahu’s other likely opponents 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 leadership aspirations.

This is Peretz’s fourth race to lead Labor, which he headed a decade ago. He guided Labor to second place in 2006 national elections and, in a rare civilian appointment, was named defense minister in former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. He pushed Israel’s development of the Iron Dome missile defense system that has overwhelmingly reduced the threat of rockets from the Gaza Strip, but his performance in the 2006 Lebanon war was severely criticized by a government commission.

Gabbay, a relative newcomer to politics, was environmental protection minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet from Kahlon’s Kulanu party, but he moved to Labor last year after leaving the government to protest the firing of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Unlike Peretz, he is not a member of parliament and has no longstanding political following, but offers a new face and business credentials to a party seen by critics as stuck in the past.

Labor’s roots stretch back well before Israel’s founding in 1948. It led the country to independence on a socialist platform and its leaders, of European descent, dominated its politics for three decades. Its iconic figures include Ben-Gurion; Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel’s defense establishment who later became its leading advocate for Middle East peacemaking; and Yitzhak Rabin, who steered peace treaties with the Palestinians and Jordan before being assassinated by a Jewish nationalist in 1995.

Elitist Whiff

Over time, Labor came to be seen as elitist and 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. Likud has governed for most of the 40 years since, and the last Labor premier was Ehud Barak, who was unseated in 2001 after less than two years.

In a sign of how far Labor has moved from its origins, Monday’s race is the first pitting two candidates of Moroccan ancestry. Peretz immigrated from Morocco as a child and got his start in politics as mayor of Sderot, a hardscrabble southern town that’s a frequent target of Palestinian rocket attacks. Gabbay was born in Jerusalem to parents who also arrived from Morocco, but hasn’t placed his ancestry at the center of the campaign.

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