JERUSALEM – A former defense minister and an ex-telecom executive advanced to the next round in Israel's Labor Party leadership election after the initial vote on Tuesday produced no decisive winner in a primary that also ousted the current chairman, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, from the race.
The two top vote-getters — Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay —will face off next week for the position of chairman after winning the biggest percentages of votes, 32 percent and 27 percent respectively.
Peretz, a former chairman, brandishes his credentials as a former defense minister who helped initiate the Iron Dome missile defense system, which shot down hundreds of rockets during the war in Gaza three years ago.
His background as a former union leader could also bring voters from working-class towns, that typically vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, and were turned off by Labor's image as a bastion of liberal, upper-class Israelis of European descent.
Gabbay gained a reputation for integrity when, as environment minister with the centrist Kulanu Party, he was the lone vote against a government decision to extract off-shore natural gas. He then resigned in protest last year and joined the Labor Party when Netanyahu ousted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon in favor of nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.
The current opposition leader Herzog came in third, with 16 percent of the vote on Tuesday night. The next Labor chairman automatically becomes the country's opposition leader, a formal role that affords meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries and high-profile speaking opportunities. However, channel 10 TV pointed out that Gabbay is not a member of parliament and therefore may have to appoint someone else for that role if elected.
Labor led Israel to independence and steered it for decades through wars, crises and the pursuit of peace. But it hasn't ruled since then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was defeated in 2001 following a failed attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians.
The next national election is scheduled for late 2019. Labor currently polls as Israel's fourth or fifth-largest party.