JERUSALEM -- A sleepy party primary campaign ended with a bang Friday when Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich lost the leadership of the party and with it the opposition in parliament.
The party elected in her place Isaac Herzog, 53, an experienced politician who is also something of a political blueblood: the son of former President Chaim Herzog and grandson of a pre-statehood chief rabbi.
Herzog’s victory speech Friday made clear his aim to unite the party’s dueling agendas and camps in hopes of better challenging the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We will return the peace flag and the socioeconomic flag for a just country,” he said.
Controlling 15 seats out of 120, Labor is the third-largest party in parliament and leads the political opposition to the government.
A lawyer by profession, Herzog was first elected to parliament a decade ago and has served in numerous positions, including welfare minister in two governments.
Yachimovich had called for an early party primary, hoping to quell discontent and solidify her leadership.
Her long-standing socioeconomic agenda of protecting workers rights and advocating just distribution of state resources tapped into Israel’s young social-protest movement and won her the leadership post in 2011.
Although she succeeded in injecting some fresh blood into the party, she alienated a large contingent of its traditional power base during the January general election campaign, when she largely ignored Labor’s long-standing platform for peace with the Palestinians and focused on social and economic issues.
Despite that focus, Yachimovich had frequently said the party would support Netanyahu if he reached a peace deal with the Palestinians that his more hawkish coalition members refused to support.
For now, Herzog said Friday, the party will remain firmly in the opposition.
“Only brave steps toward peace with the Palestinians will enable us to win on all fronts,” Herzog said, adding he had “great doubt” whether Netanyahu understands this.
Although it gained seats in the last elections, Labor is a shadow of the party that controlled government during the nation’s first three decades. Since losing power to the right in 1977, the party has clearly won general elections only twice.
The party also faces ongoing internal challenges. Its rank and file are especially unforgiving of its leaders, and the frequent ousting of chairpersons amid constant attempts to redefine the party has earned it a reputation as a party that devours its leaders.
Since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a Labor politician, was assassinated in 1995, leadership of the party has changed hands eight times and no chairperson has managed to hold two consecutive terms, according to an analysis by Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Leadership of Likud, Netanyahu’s ruling party, has only changed hands twice in the same period.
Sobelman is a news assistant in the Times’ Jerusalem bureau.