Erel Margalit.(Courtesy Erel Margalit)
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Labor Pains

The race to head the once-dominant Israeli party heats up

Liel Leibovitz
April 27, 2011
Erel Margalit.(Courtesy Erel Margalit)

With the last two putative candidates for the top spot in Israel’s beleaguered Labor Party having officially joined the race today, the dash to redeem the once-omnipotent, currently shattered political institution has begun.

These two, Erel Margalit and Amram Mitzna, couldn’t be more different. Margalit is a young and charismatic venture capitalist, a frequent name on Forbes’s vaunted Midas List—an annual ranking of the most skilled dealmakers in high-tech—who catapulted his company, Jerusalem Venture Partners, into international stardom with billion-dollar deals. He has had a hand in some of the more thrilling technology companies to emerge out of Israel in the recent decade. Having spent some time with Margalit for an upcoming Tablet Magazine profile, I believe he’s a rare occurrence in the Israeli political landscape: A throwback to Labor’s glory days who has seamlessly swapped the old-fashioned pioneer archetype for the modern entrepreneur one while maintaining the same belief in the redeeming value of hard work. As one of Israel’s emergent captains of industry, he has spent much time working to bring disenfranchised populations—Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, most notably—into the hot and fast-paced high-tech arena, and his vision for Labor moves along similar lines. Also, rather than jockey for power with Labor’s Old Guard, he embarked on a campaign to register 30,000 new voters to the crumbling party, bringing his own, powerful base with him.

And yet, in many ways, Margalit is an unknown to most Israelis. He has yet to make a coherent, convincing statement on foreign and security policies, and has no experience governing. Which is where Mitzna has a clear lead: A former mayor of Haifa and IDF general, he has already served as the head of Labor, leading it to the second-worst electoral disaster in its history in 2003 and retiring soon thereafter. Since his defeat, he has served as the mayor of Yeruham, a struggling town in the Negev desert, and is credited for creating a robust economic turnaround there.

Mitzna and Margalit are the newest kids on the block, but there are four more contenders to the crown. Members of Knesset Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich both generate very strong buzz among the punditry. The remaining two candidates, MK Yitzhak Herzog—embroiled in scandal after a recent WikiLeaks release quoted him as saying borderline racist comments about a political opponent—and Local Council chairman Shlomo Buchbut, are considered long-shots.

The primaries are September 12. Let the games begin.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.