Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor party—and, by extension, of the Knesset opposition—faces the very real possibility of losing both her jobs tonight, when results of today’s party primaries will pour in to Labor headquarters on Fiorello LaGuardia street in Tel Aviv. Her opponent is a scion of party royalty: Isaac Herzog, known as Buji. But while both are 53 and very popular within Labor, they couldn’t be more different.
Yachimovich, who had a strong socialist upbringing in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, was one of Israel’s most recognizable—and outspoken—media personalities before quitting Channel 2 News eight years ago for a political career under the guidance of Amir Peretz. By early 2006, Yachimovich had reinvented herself as an MK. A talented and hard-working parliamentarian, her early focus on social and labor law issues helped her ride the waves of the 2011 social justice protests and defeat her one-time benefactor Peretz in the second round of party primaries in September of that year.
But as the early 2013 Knesset elections approached, her insistence to run on an almost-exclusively social platform—effectively forfeiting the leadership of the “Peace camp” that had long been Labor’s bread and butter—won her few fans. And when the dust settled, it became apparent that Yair Lapid, another Channel 2 journalist-turned-politician, had enjoyed the fruits that should have been Labor’s.
Promising to rescue the down-trodden middle class, Yesh Atid gained 19 Knesset seats; Yachimovich’s Labor, checkered as it was with J14 alumni, had only 15. In a party well-known for regularly punishing its leaders—Yachimovich was the seventh in just a decade—the clock towards today’s leadership primary began ticking immediately.
Isaac Herzog is the son of Chaim Herzog, the Irish émigré lawyer who became one of Israel’s most legendary personas—chief of military intelligence, ambassador to the United Nations, Labor MK and President. The younger Herzog began his career at his father’s mega law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman, but segued into politics in the late 1990s, first as Ehud Barak’s cabinet secretary, and later as a Labor MK. Soft-spoken and mild mannered, Herzog was consistently one of the party’s most beloved politicians, and served as Minister of Welfare, Diaspora, Housing and Tourism (though not all at once). But it remains unclear whether many of his fans see him as a convincing number one; his run against Yachimovich and Peretz two years ago was a failure.
Both sides claim that polls place them at an advantage, but with a disappointing incumbent facing off against a challenger who just might be out of his league, it’s a small wonder that many party members weren’t too energized in the run-up to these elections, to put it mildly. Even Binyamin ‘Fuad’ Ben Eliezer, a veteran Labor MK, self-styled kingmaker, and former party leader himself, told Haaretz’s Yossi Verter he had no idea who would win.
“What’s happening with your [Labor Party leadership] primary?” I asked MK Ben-Eliezer this week in the Knesset. Sighing deeply, he replied, “For the first time in 30 years, I have no idea. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know … The key activists are wild over Buji [Herzog]. But Shelly has reserves that have already proved themselves. If they come out to vote, the way they did last time, when I backed Amir Peretz, she will win”
The question, though, might not be who will win, but whether either of the candidates has what it takes to revitalize a party that, at its peak, held more than three times as many Knesset seats as it does today. The winner certainly has his or her work cut out for them.