Jerusalem: Israel`s battered opposition Labor Party has turned to an outspoken female journalist to revive its fortunes, bringing a fresh face to the Israeli political stage.
Shelly Yacimovich, 51, was declared the winner of the centrist party`s leadership primary after a runoff late Wednesday, garnering 54 percent of the vote compared to 45 percent support for her rival and one-time political mentor Amir Peretz, a former party leader who also served as defence minister. Two other candidates were ousted in a first round of voting last week.
Yacimovich, a former host of current affairs shows on Israel Radio and Channel 2 TV has focused her six-year political career solely on social and economic affairs rather than security and defence.
Her victory appeared linked to changes on the country`s political map by large protests this summer against Israel`s high cost of living and the erosion of public health, education and the social welfare net. The protests, which drew hundreds of thousands into the streets, indicated that the public is now placing a greater emphasis on the economic issues that Yacimovich has made her primary concern.
After her victory, Yacimovich was greeted by supporters with chants of "the people demand social justice”, which has become the slogan of this summer`s economic protests.
"It is time to rebuild the state of Israel in the spirit of justice, of responsibility of the state toward its citizens and of striving for equality," she said in her victory speech. "The Labor party built the state of Israel ... it is time for her to rebuild the state of Israel again."
Labor voters appear to be hoping Yacimovich can help their party — which now holds a meagre eight seats out of 120 in Israel`s Parliament — ride those sentiments back to power.
Her opponent in the runoff, former union leader Peretz, also has credentials as a proponent of social welfare. But Peretz has been largely unpopular in the general public since he was perceived to have lacked competence in Israel`s 2006 war with Hezbollah, during which he served as defence minister.
With her election, Yacimovich becomes only the second woman to lead the Labor party — after former Prime Minister Golda Meir.
The daughter of two Holocaust survivors who came to Israel from Poland, Yacimovich was a prominent radio and television journalist before entering politics.
She hosted several programs with an emphasis on social inequalities, earning her an imitation on a popular TV satire in which she was portrayed — by a man — as an outspoken and humourless gadfly.
In the late 1990s, she provided a platform for a movement calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, helping build the public pressure that eventually led to a withdrawal in 2000.
In 2005, she left journalism and joined Labor, entering Parliament after a national election the following year. She sponsored bills like one requiring employers to allow checkout clerks to work while seated and another extending maternity leave.
When Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, faced a slew of corruption allegations during his term in office, Yacimovich became one of his most vocal critics despite being a member of his governing coalition at the time.
But rehabilitating the beleaguered and fractured Labor will not be easy.
The party founded Israel and dominated its politics for the country`s first three decades. It was led by such iconic figures as David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Meir. In the 1990s, it spearheaded the Oslo peace agreements with the Palestinians.
But the party was decimated in a national election after Palestinians launched a campaign of attacks in Israeli cities in 2000, and never recovered.