JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's main opposition party has chosen a new leader, crowning a veteran lawmaker and Labor Party stalwart as chairman of the once-storied party after a landslide victory, according to election results released Friday.
Isaac Herzog won 58.5 percent of the votes in Thursday's primary, over 41.5 percent garnered by incumbent Shelly Yachimovich. With the win, Herzog becomes Israel's new opposition leader.
General elections are still three years away and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hold on power is seemingly unchallenged. Experts predict, however, that Labor's vote will likely see the party shift back more to its traditional agendas — diplomacy and security issues — and perhaps become more amenable to joining Netanyahu's coalition should nascent peace talks with the Palestinians gather steam.
Yachimovich, who became the party's first ever female leader just two years ago, was credited with revitalizing Labor at one of its lowest points by veering it away from its traditional dovish platform of promoting peace and focusing entirely on jobs, the economy and Israel's other social ills.
She was boosted by a massive social protest movement in the summer of 2011 against the country's high cost of living.
But the policy shift also earned her critics at home who claimed it turned the movement that led Israel to independence into a single-issue party.
In national elections earlier this year, Yachimovich led the party to a disappointing third-place finish with only 15 seats out of 120 in parliament. Unlike former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's new party and the centrist Yesh Atid faction, Yachimovich refused to join Netanyahu's coalition. Instead, Labor became a fierce opponent of the prime minister's conservative diplomatic and economic policies.
Herzog, 53 and a father of three, has been a leading lawmaker for the past decade and served as Cabinet minister in a series of Israeli governments. He was previously a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a high-profile lawyer in the private sector. Affectionately known in Israel by his nickname 'Buji,' he enjoys something of a royalty status in the party as the son of former Israeli President Chaim Herzog.
"I grew up in this party and have been party member my whole life. I am honored and aware of the responsibility to stand where so many great leaders have stood before," he said in a victory speech. "We will work day and night to return the party to its rightful place."
Herzog vowed to refocus the party's agenda on diplomacy. Under his leadership, Herzog said the Labor Party would offer a real alternative to Netanyahu and "challenge the government until we return to running the country."
After a five-year lull in peace talks, Netanyahu's government is currently conducting quiet negotiations with the Palestinians. But critics accuse the government of merely negotiating for appearances sake while continuing construction in West Bank settlements, territories Palestinians want for their future state.
Herzog said Friday that peace with the Palestinians should be Israel's top priority.
"I have big doubts whether the prime minister knows this and is acting toward this," he said.
Although Labor's roots are socialist, Yachimovich's economy-focused approach alienated some of Labor's traditional supporters. Critics accused her of turning Labor — which dominated Israeli politics for the country's first 30 years and produced prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — into a niche party that ignores Israel's diplomatic and security challenges and fails to present a viable alternative to the security-obsessed right.
Peres, now president of Israel, called Herzog on Friday to congratulate him on winning the primary.
In a Facebook post, Yachimovich said she called Herzog to concede defeat and promised to cooperate with him in posing an alternative to Netanyahu's right-wing government.
Reuven Hazan, head of the political science department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Yachimovich was never truly a viable option to replace Netanyahu as prime minister and it would be Herzog's challenge as party leader to turn the party from "a combative opposition to a viable ruling alternative."