The Labor Primaries: Will Shelly Yachimovich Break the Losing Streak?

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On Thursday, November 21, 2013, the Labor Party will hold primaries for the party leadership. Its members will either oust their party leader or Shelly Yachimovich will succeed where others have failed and will maintain her position as party chair for an additional term. Dr. Ofer Kenig shares insights on the upcoming primaries.

The Labor Party is a "party that devours its leaders." Since the assassination of Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, the party's chairmanship has changed hands eight times (with an average term of two years), and no leader has been able to hold on to the position for a second consecutive term. Several leaders gave up and stepped down voluntarily; these include Shimon Peres in 1997, Amram Mitzna in 2003, and Ehud Barak in 2001 and 2011. Other party chairs lost primary elections to contenders who challenged their leadership; these include Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer in 2002, Shimon Peres in 2005, and Amir Peretz in 2007. In contrast, the Likud chairmanship changed hands only twice during the same period of time.

Will this destructive pattern be broken this time? Will an incumbent Labor chair be reelected for the first time in years? This question will be answered by some 55,000 party members who are eligible to vote in the primaries. In order to be elected, one candidate must receive at least 40 % of the vote. If no one receives such a majority, there will be a runoff election between the two leading candidates five days after the original election.

A Party that Devours its Leaders?
The Leaders of the Labor Party Since 1995

 Years   Party Chair   Reason for Stepping Down
1995-1997   Shimon Peres   Decided not to run in the primaries following internal party criticism after the loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections
1997-2001   Ehud Barak   Decided not to run in the primaries following internal party criticism after the loss to Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections
2001-2002   Binyamin Ben Eliezer   Lost the primary elections
2002-2003   Amram Mitzna   Decided not to run in the primaries following internal party criticism after the 2003 Knesset elections
2003-2005   Shimon Peres   Lost the primary elections
2005-2007   Amir Peretz   Lost the primary elections
2007-2011   Ehud Barak   Left the party following internal criticism and predictions that he would lose the primaries
2011-   Shelly Yachimovich   TBD


The incumbent leader of the Labor party, Shelly Yachimovich (age 53), was elected party chair after defeating Amir Peretz, Isaac Herzog, and Amram Mitzna in the 2011 leadership primaries. Since her election, Yachimovich has succeeded in breathing new life into the party ranks, attracting new audiences and young people. She managed to position herself as an opinionated social leader who presents the Labor party as an alternative to the economic policy of the Netanyahu governments. At the same time, however, Yachimovich's leadership style garnered quite a few opponents. Some internal reforms that she initiated were seen as measures that weakened certain sectors (kibbutzim and the Arab sector) within the party. In addition, the line that Yachimovich took in the campaign for the 2013 Knesset elections, which emphasized socio-economic issues rather than security and foreign affairs , elicited waves of criticism. These were intensified following the party's modest electoral success (or failure, depending on your point of view), in which it only received 15 Knesset seats.

Yachimovich's main rival is Isaac (Bougie) Herzog, chairman of the Labor faction in the Knesset, who is also 53. Herzog has greater political experience than Yachimovich. He has served in the Knesset for longer than she has and has more experience in executive positions, as he was a Minister in the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Herzog is considered to have more moderate socio-economic views than Yachimovich.  While he is known for having good relationships with Knesset members from across the political spectrum, many people contend that he is not cut out to lead. The current leadership primaries are Herzog's second attempt to run for party chairman. In the previous election (2011), he received more support than expected; he garnered a quarter of the vote, but this only placed him in third place, behind Yachimovich and Amir Peretz.

Despite the fact that the Labor primaries are giving party members a choice between two candidates with different ideological views and different leadership styles, the campaign has been fairly sleepy and did not seem to be of much interest to the public. According to political analysts, a quiet campaign works in favor of Yachimovich. What did manage to generate some interest at times was the recruiting of political support from other politicians and differences of opinion about the rules of the game.

Yachimovich's public support relied on endorsements from most of the Labor Party's Knesset members and on the new forces, such as students and young people who were involved in the social protest of 2011, that she brought to the party during the two years since her election as party chair. Herzog, in contrast, had to work hard to expand his support base. An important first step was convincing MKs Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit to abandon the idea of running themselves and to join him in forming a united front against Yachimovich. Following that, Herzog managed to win public support from former Labor politicians (Yossi Beilin and Uzi Baram) and from leading mayors affiliated with the Labor party (Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv and Dov Tzur of Rishon LeZion).

Differences of opinion regarding the "rules of the game" also stirred up the campaign. The first dispute centered on the timing of the primaries. According to the Labor party's constitution, if the party does not win the Knesset elections, the elections for party chair must be held within 14 months of the Knesset election. That means that the Labor primaries must take place by March 2014 at the latest. Last summer, Yachimovich initiated moving the primaries up to November 2013. This move made it impossible to expand the party membership by adding new people who would have the right to vote, since according to the party's regulations, only people who have been members of the party for six months or more are eligible to vote in the primaries. Some voices within the party claimed that advancing the date of the elections was designed to freeze the voter registry and prevent challengers from enrolling new members in an attempt to oust Yachimovich. The party approved the proposal to move up the date of the election at its convention by a small majority of 576 (52%) compared to 533 (48 %).

A second controversy surrounded a decision regarding the number of polling stations that would be distributed across the country. Labor's election committee decided to have fewer polling stations than in the previous leadership primaries; the number, however, was similar to the number of polls that were set up for determining the party's Knesset list in 2012. Herzog claimed that this decision was based on Yachimovich's ulterior motives to do away with polling stations in areas in which she has little support. His petition to the party's court was denied, and this week it will become clear whether there will be a last-minute hearing in a regular court about this matter.

The manner in which the Labor primaries are conducted and the results of the primaries are of interest for several reasons. First, these elections are an important test case, since they were not preceded by a registration campaign, and as a result, they could potentially be free of a negative phenomenon that has tarnished almost all Labor primaries in the last decade: vote brokers. These "professional" vote recruiters—who use illegitimate means to enroll party members with questionable connections to the party—were not able to have their harmful effect this time.

Secondly, the results of the primaries will apparently define the party's political path for the future. A victory for Yachimovich is likely to leave the party focused on socio- economic issues and keep it in its role as a strident opposition to the policies of the Netanyahu government. A victory for Herzog, however, is likely to move the party's socio-economic line a bit towards the center and to bring political-security issues back into focus. Some say that if Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni's peace talks reach an important crossroad, Herzog would not hesitate to lead the party into Netanyahu's government. A victory for Herzog would also create a complex challenge in terms of party cohesion. If he wins, not only will it be yet another case in which an incumbent leader again fails to survive the primaries, but it will be interesting to see how a leader who is chosen by members of the party manages to bind together the party's Knesset members as a team, when most of them did not support his candidacy.

Actual Results of the Labor Party Primaries
(November 22, 2013)

Candidate   No. of Votes   % of Votes
Isaac Herzog   16,652   58.5%
Shelly Yachimovich   11,821    41.5%



Dr. Ofer Kenig heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.