Fiery election hints at a new beginning

Recent polls had Shelly Yachimovich winning the leadership race easily, but Peretz pushed her to a run-off

Recent polls had Shelly Yachimovich winning the leadership race easily, but Peretz pushed her to a run-off

Labour party members will go back to the polls next Wednesday after none of the four leadership candidates gained the 40 per cent of votes necessary to win Monday's primaries.

For the party that founded Israel and governed it for its first three decades, the choice will be between two avowed social-democrats, Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, who emerged from this week's vote almost on level pegging.

Neither of them are pledging to return the party to power any time soon. Instead, they are promising a new agenda, based mainly on social issues.

Many politicians and pundits have been talking up Labour as a major force in recent months, despite the split within its ranks which saw previous leader Ehud Barak departing from his own party along with four other Knesset members. As it turned out, the primaries were a spirited affair, with 65 per cent of members participating.

Six candidates put their names forward, with Mayor of Maalot Shlomo Buhbut and Jerusalem high-tech tycoon Erel Margalit dropping out due to lack of support before polling day.

Of the remaining four, the most recent polls had Ms Yachimovich, a former firebrand journalist and only six years in politics, winning easily, with former leader and ex-defence minister Mr Peretz a distant second.

The polls wrote off the chances of former social services minister Isaac Herzog and Amram Mitzna, another former party leader. However, they failed to take into account the formidable campaigns run both by Mr Peretz, who gained 31 per cent of the vote to Ms Yachimovich's 32 per cent, and Mr Herzog, who only reached third place but with 25 per cent. This was double what the last polls had predicted, and he forced a second round on the two front-runners.

The run-off between Mr Peretz and Ms Yachimovich is particularly poignant. Both politicians have a similar agenda: that Labour has focused for too long on defence and diplomacy, forsaking working-class concerns.

It was Mr Peretz, the feisty former trade union leader, who convinced the journalist to get into politics. Their alliance is now a thing of the past. On the morning after the primaries, Mr Peretz said: "Shelly should admit defeat, she descended to a low place in Israeli politics," and accused his opponent of cutting a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ms Yachimovich's office described the accusations as "groundless and we have no intention of being dragged into them. We will continue to run a clean campaign."

While both contenders have said repeatedly they will not join Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, most political observers believe that the Prime Minister is rooting for a Yachimovich victory, as her appeal is to mainly middle-class urban voters, currently the constituency of the largest opposition party, Kadima. Mr Peretz, on the other hand, is seen as the candidate who can entice working-class voters away from Likud.

Last updated: 12:42pm, September 15 2011