Can Peretz breathe new life into the Labor Party?

Amir Peretz’s victory in the Labor Party primary is a vote for someone who has promised to revive the party and a defeat for Ehud Barak, who had other plans for it.

al-monitor Former Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz speaks at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Jan. 31, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen.

Jul 3, 2019

The election of Knesset member Amir Peretz as chairman of the Labor Party on July 2 was a resounding blow to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his plan to lead a large left-wing bloc. Barak took politics by storm on June 26 when he returned with a new party and worked behind the scenes to try to get senior Labor Party member Itzik Shmuli elected Labor's leader. It is thought that had that happened, Labor would have immediately merged with Barak’s still-to-be named new party. In actuality, Barak saw it as an opportunity to make a run for the Prime Minister’s Office.

Although this all sounds politically unviable, Barak is known for his tangled, complicated plans. In his thinking, he would be able to take over the Labor Party through Shmuli and then join forces with Meretz, creating a left-wing bloc and emerging as an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This assumption was based on the perception that Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz has shown himself to be weak in mounting an effective opposition to Netanyahu. The extent to which Barak was invested in this initiative can be seen in the series of steps he took over the last few days.

Barak attempted to get key figures from Labor to join him, and in doing so, managed to recruit Yaya Fink from the party’s Young Guard and Noa Rothman, granddaughter of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Barak appealed to the very heart of the left, embraced Rabin’s legacy and promised that he would not join Netanyahu under any circumstances. During the process, he met with Shmuli and Knesset member Stav Shaffir, the two young Laborites who ran against Peretz to lead the Labor Party.

On the day of the Labor primary, Barak announced a press conference in Tel Aviv to make himself relevant. The media was initially invited to Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv, home of the Israeli Journalists Association and also one of the biggest Labor Party polling stations. Peretz’s team was livid, seeing the move as a callous act of interference in the Labor Party’s activities and saying as much in a sharply worded threat to Barak. Realizing that he had gone too far, Barak moved his press conference to a hotel.

When it was learned on the evening of July 2 that Peretz had won the first-round primary by an impressive margin, and that Shmuli had came in third, behind Shaffir, the first brick in Barak’s master plan appeared to crumble. There was little cause for celebration at his headquarters. One person who breathed a sigh of relief was Gantz, who had watched Barak positioning himself on the front lines, preparing to push Gantz aside as the center-left’s candidate for prime minister. Shmuli took a political hit, losing leadership of Labor’s next generation to Shaffir.

Blue and White leaders had been watching nervously as the above developments unfolded. They debated whether to launch a full-throttled attack against Barak, fearing it might become a circular firing squad. The election of Peretz is good news for Gantz, but not for the Blue and White as the largest party in the bloc. Unlike Gantz, Peretz already knows how to lead an opposition and has campaign experience. He is expected to work hard to win back the seats that Labor lost to Blue and White in the April 9 elections.

Peretz has returned to lead the Labor Party after being defeated by Barak in June 2007 and departing the Defense Ministry for him. He has no intention of handing over leadership of the Labor Party to anyone. In fact, people around him have told Al-Monitor that he has no plans to join forces with Meretz or Barak. Rather, Peretz hopes to attract old and new forces to Labor and add them to the party's list. Former Minister Tzipi Livni and former Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis are just two of the people he plans to approach, and he will likely try to recruit from the religious Zionist camp as well.

Peretz’s victory was, first and foremost, a vote by members of Labor for someone who has promised to revive their moribund party and restore its social and diplomatic agenda as a classic social democratic party. They chose an experienced and highly regarded individual — the person who got credit for the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system — instead of being taken in by Shmuli and Shaffir, two young stars who got their start in politics in the social protest movement. Electing either Shaffir or Shmuli would have branded Labor a social-oriented niche party.

More so, after the adventurism of outgoing party leader Avi Gabbay that ended in an electoral disaster — the party only won six seats in April — Labor members decided to play it safe. They chose the well-known, capable and experienced candidate. Peretz may not be a contender for prime minister, but he is certainly a political force to be reckoned with on the center left and someone who has already proved that he knows how to appeal to the soft right too.

It may be hard to believe, but the primary of the small Labor Party generated considerable interest across the political spectrum, including in the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu followed developments closely, hoping that Peretz would win. He did not want to see Barak return to the political arena as head of a large left-wing bloc. The election of Peretz guarantees (more or less) that the Labor Party will preserve its independence, rather than trade it away. In other words, the center-left bloc will continue to be divided, which ensures that Likud will emerge after the Sept. 17 elections as the largest party in another race between two leaders, Netanyahu and Gantz.

Nevertheless, it is too early to tell what will really happen with the center-left bloc now that it has been jolted back to life. It is possible that Peretz can succeed in bringing Barak and a few members of his new party back into the Labor fold in a joint list that he will head.

What Peretz proved is that it pays to stick to your guns. After several failed attempts to return as Labor's leader — including stunning defeats to Barak in 2007, Shelly Yachimovich in 2013, and Gabbay in 2017 — the 67-year-old Peretz is returning to head a party on the verge of extinction, one whose finances have been devastated, a party that has lost its way and perhaps even its identity. He comes invigorated and ambitious, however, hoping to restore Labor to the days when it was a major player in the political arena. He will work to rebuild the party and reestablish its once-strong ties with the supporters who abandoned it, like the residents of the development (periphery) towns and Israel’s Arab population.

It can be said that by electing Peretz, the Labor Party chose to live, instead of falling into Barak’s trap after he almost destroyed it in 2011.

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