Who will lead the next generation of Israel’s Labor?

The battle heating up between Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir not only has to bear on the upcoming primary to lead Labor, but also on the question of who will lead the next generation of the party.

al-monitor Labor Party candidates Stav Shaffir (L) and Itzik Shmuli attend a mock election at a high school in Ramat Gan, Israel, Dec. 6, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jun 25, 2019

The battle heating up between Knesset members Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir not only has to bear on the July 2 primary to lead the Labor Party but also on the much broader question of who will lead the next generation of the party.

Shmuli, 39, and Shaffir, 34, started their political paths in the summer of 2011 during the social protests. They were the prominent and outspoken leaders alongside Daphni Leef, the undisputed star of the protests who chose to stay out of politics. The protests over the cost of living and housing, considered until today the broadest and longest popular awakening in the history of the State of Israel, made Shmuli and Shaffir known to every household. They spoke, protested and were interviewed from the tent city that was created in Tel Aviv. The protests changed political discourse, which focused more on social welfare issues, and carried the two of them into the Knesset in 2013 as part of the Labor Party. They symbolized freshness, a fighting spirit and a sense of change in the party, which was then led by Shelly Yachimovich, who focused its agenda on social and economic issues.

Shmuli and Shaffir are branded as legislators focused on social issues. They regularly receive high marks on measures that look at the achievements of Knesset members on social justice. However, they were never close friends, and in their work in the Knesset they haven’t been known for cooperating with each other. In fact, there has been covert competition and constant tension between them.

While Shaffir is considered a solo politician who enjoys popularity on social networks and frequently debates ultra-Orthodox and right-wing members of Knesset by means of intentional provocations in Knesset committees and in her speeches, Shmuli conducts a different kind of politics. He has cooperated with many Knesset members, including from rival parties, and is considered to be well-liked and diligent in his party. For a certain time, he was thought to be close to the party chairman, Avi Gabbay. Shmuli, who is openly gay, earlier this year brought a child into the world with his partner by means of a surrogate in the United States.

In the February primary for the ranking of the party list for the 21st Knesset, Shmuli finished first and Shaffir second. Two former leaders of the party, Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, were ranked behind them; both were voted into the Knesset in the April 9 general election. 

Shmuli and Shaffir started their careers in the Labor Party in the years when it was still considered the opposition alternative to the ruling Likud. The six seats that Labor received in April turned it into a small and almost inconsequential party, generations away from its days as the ruling party. The Knesset election set for Sept. 17 is providing an opportunity for Labor to make some advances and for Shaffir or Shmuli to vie to lead the party sooner than had been expected.

Running against them in the primary is Peretz, who served as defense minister in 2006-07 in Ehud Olmert’s government. Peretz is one of the most respected and experienced politicians in Israeli politics and has for decades led a social democratic agenda with a dovish diplomatic outlook. He’s 67, which in itself creates a kind of intergenerational battle between him and Shmuli and Shaffir. They are not playing on the same court, and Peretz’s tremendous experience in politics and as a decision-maker stands out against his two rivals’ lack of such experience.

Shmuli, in his June 23 speech at a party conference convened to prepare for the September election, addressed Shaffir, calling her a “fighter.” He said, “Both of us understand that the real fight is against the right. We both also see the same numbers. Stav, you know the situation, let’s learn from past mistakes, step down from the race and support me, together we’ll start a new chapter, full of hope, for the Labor Party.”

Shmuli was answered by a mocking tweet from Shaffir: “Which Itzik should I respond to, the one who offered partnership today in front of the cameras, or the one who rejected my offer for partnership to save the party a month ago behind closed doors?”

Some claimed the subtext of Shmuli’s address to Shaffir presented Peretz’s age as a detriment as opposed to the new hope they offer for Labor. In any event Shmuli didn’t say these things out of love for Shaffir, and he could have reached out to her in other, more discreet ways, but he chose to say it publicly in a way that presented him alone against Peretz, head to head.

Indeed, in most estimates the main battle will be between Peretz and Shmuli. If Shaffir give ups her candidacy in the end, the main benefactor will be Shmuli. As long as she stays in the race, Peretz enjoys the split in the votes of the younger electorate. For Peretz, a loss in race to Shmuli or Shaffir will be a final chord in an impressive political career.

The Labor Party has experienced a shake-up in recent years. It elected Avi Gabbay, a man who came from outside the party and grew up in a Likud household, in hopes of remaining a plausible alternative to the ruling party. With six seats, this hasn’t exactly panned out. This also meant that veteran and respected politicians lost their Knesset seats. Soon after the elections, Gabbay held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to possibly join the right-wing government. While the talks amounted to nothing in the end, this further damaged the party’s image. Now the Labor Party again finds itself at a crossroad. Choosing a new young leader could be one gamble too many.

Electing Shmuli, who undoubtedly is an excellent parliamentarian with an impressive legislative record on social issues, would signal a new era where the party ultimately accepts becoming a niche social justice party. Choosing Peretz would be choosing the old, someone who symbolizes the politics of wheeling and dealing; still, he could offer experience at the government table and could declare, without eliciting chortles, that he has come to reform the party in order to turn it into a contender again. If Shmuli is elected, he is expected to work to bring back to the party former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, 77, who may run under the banner of a new party in the September Knesset election. Barak, by the by, is also a man of the past.

That’s the dilemma that will face the 60,000 members of the Labor Party on July 2. A union between Shaffir and Shmuli seems unlikely. What is certain is that it will be a fascinating intergenerational battle.

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