Last updated: 21 September, 2011

Israel’s rudderless Labour party seeks new leader

A former defence minister and a one-time TV journalist squared off on Wednesday for the second round of a fight for the leadership of Israel’s Labour party.

The once-mighty party, now reduced to eight seats in the 120-member parliament, has been without a chairman since Defence Minister Ehud Barak jumped ship in January to form the centrist Independence movement.

Polls across the country opened at 10:00 am (0700 GMT) and were to close 12 hours later, a Labour party statement said, with preliminary results expected shortly after voting ends and a finally tally after midnight (2100 GMT).

The 66,310 Labour members eligible to vote in the primary will choose between Shelly Yacimovich, 51, and Amir Peretz, 59. Two other candidates were eliminated in a first round contest last week in which Yacimovich won 32 percent of the vote, to Peretz’s 31 percent.

Formerly a leading journalist and television presenter who was elected to parliament in 2006 under Peretz’s patronage, Yacimovich has largely been enjoying the support of the Israeli media in the race, winning support for her strong social agenda.

Peretz, who once headed Israel’s Histadrut trades union federation, was defence minister during the 2006 Lebanon War which claimed the lives of 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, and was widely considered a failure by Israelis.

He stepped down as both defence minister and as leader of the Labour party the next year.