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Why Israeli opposition leader shouldn't rejoice over convention victory

The victory of Labor Chair Isaac Herzog over the party primary date has little significance in terms of public support and his chances to become the next prime minister.
Israel's main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad - RTSEU5S

When Chairman of the Labor Party Isaac “Buji” Herzog spoke at the Labor Party convention on July 31, he faced a chorus of dozens of party members chanting “Buji go home!” By then he already knew that despite the humiliation, he was assured a victory on his proposal to postpone the party’s primaries. Maybe that was why he didn’t look too worried. He even flashed a fighting spirit of his own, when he shouted back, “I will not allow a culture akin to La Familia [fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team that is known for violent acts] in the Labor Party.” He made it quite clear that he has no plans to go anywhere. He would remain the leader of the Labor Party.

The party convention only took place after numerous delays. It was the first time that Herzog faced his rivals who want to depose him. According to the party’s constitution, internal elections for the position of party chairman were supposed to be held last May. But Herzog’s standing within the party had already suffered a severe blow, following his failed attempt to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in May, so he tried to postpone his fate. Never for a moment did he plan to leave without a fight, or to put his head on the chopping block.

The party chairman’s opponents, led by Knesset members Erel Margalit, former party chair Shelly Yachimovich and Omer Bar-Lev, called for primaries to be held as soon as possible.

The bottom line is that by the time the party arrived at its convention July 31, it was battered and exhausted after another annus horribilis in the opposition. The main issue on the agenda was a proposal by Herzog to postpone the primaries by a year, to July 2017. This was countered by a proposal by Margalit and Yachimovich to hold the primaries in December 2016.

This was the first power struggle that Herzog faced within his own party since he was defeated by Netanyahu in the March 2015 election. This time, he walked away with a clear victory. Some 70% of the convention’s attendees supported his proposal, proving that he still controls the party’s institutions. His opponents had demanded that the vote be held by secret ballot, to avoid subjecting attendees to undue pressure. Herzog overcame this obstacle, too. Once they stepped behind the curtain and were left alone with their conscience, representatives cast their votes for Herzog, granting him this political victory.

Nevertheless, Herzog has little reason to celebrate his victory. This is not because of the angry reception he received, with pictures of him placed alongside photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That scene actually benefited Herzog’s normally feeble image. One of Herzog’s stalwart supporters, Knesset member Eitan Cabel, sounded shocked in an interview he gave to Army Radio upon leaving the convention. “I've known this party for decades,” he said, “but I’ve never seen anything like this. Nothing like this has ever happened, even in the party’s toughest moments, even in its fiercest struggles. We’ve never stooped so low before. My God! What have we come to?”

It should not be taken for granted that Cabel was right. The Labor Party has contended with many other low points over the past few years, and many of these were equally contentious. The sight of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak grabbing the microphone in November 2004 was worse. Barak stormed the stage in a frenzy and accused party Chairman and former President Shimon Peres of playing dirty tricks. Back then, the party was also fighting over whether it should advance its primaries. Peres, like Herzog, wanted to postpone them. Back then, the Labor Party was also licking its wounds after another failure at the polls. And back then, Barak also wanted to depose the party’s incumbent chairman.

Peres was accused of postponing the primaries so that he could enter late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, and this was, in fact, the case. Similarly, Herzog has not abandoned his dream of joining the Netanyahu government, and now he has another year to cobble together a deal. It is true that once Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu) joined the government, it became harder for the Labor Party to come onboard, but at the same time, it is also true that the door has not been slammed shut.

Then why does Herzog have so much to worry about after his victory at the Labor Party convention? The most important reason is that there is no real connection between what Herzog was able to achieve within his party and his status among the general public, or even among the tens of thousands of Labor Party members. He is still weak among both those groups.

A significant number of the 24 seats that Herzog won in the last election by joining forces with Hatnua Party head Tzipi Livni, creating the Zionist Camp, have long since disappeared, according to polls. Those voters have set up camp with Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid. And when the primaries are finally held, Labor Party voters will check the polls and look for a candidate who can bring them better results. Political maneuvering is possible before hundreds of representatives attending a party convention, especially with the help of Histadrut Labor Union Chairman Avi Nissenkorn, Labor Party Secretary-General Hilik Bar and Cabel. The same is not true when facing all Labor Party voters, and certainly not when dealing with the public aligned with the center-left. That requires something entirely different, and the Labor Party under Herzog simply doesn't have that. On the other hand, it is highly doubtful whether a Labor Party led by Yachimovich, Margalit, former Labor Party head Amir Peretz or Bar-Lev would have it either.

This should be another warning sign for Herzog. The Labor Party leader’s achievement is very much a result of how weak his rivals are. None of them is considered an “ace.” None of them is thought to be the kind of leader who could restore the party’s hope for victory in the next election. While Margalit has done a decent job promoting himself over the past few months through a rather provocative campaign, he still needs more time. As things stand now, he is not considered a viable candidate to defeat Netanyahu. The same is true about the three other rivals. Regarding Yachimovich and Peretz, they have already served as party leader. They both led the Labor Party in an election, and neither of them managed to bring the party back to power. It can, however, be assumed that if, on the evening of July 31, Herzog had faced some promising new candidate, whom the polls show could put up a real fight against Netanyahu and the Likud, Herzog’s situation would be very different.

All this means is that nothing significant has changed following this convention. The party remains in the same depressed state, while Herzog’s standing hasn’t improved either. The convention seemed more like an anger management workshop after the crushing electoral defeat — only it came more than a year too late. If there is one thing that no one can take from the Labor Party, it is the ability, even in dire circumstances, to put on a feverish impassioned show. It can still do that, as if it were still the ruling party.