Former journalist takes top spot in Israel's Labour party

AFP , Thursday 22 Sep 2011

New hope for Israel's Labour Party as Shelly Yacimovitch, the second woman elected head of the party, is expected to occupy the centre ground

Pragmatic and confident, Shelly Yacimovitch, who has been elected head of Israel's Labour, sees herself as the party's hope for a comeback after a catastrophic plunge in its popularity.

At 51, the former broadcast journalist-turned-MP has the huge task of reinvigorating a party which is a mere shadow of its former self, and holds only eight seats in the 120-member parliament -- compared to 56 in its heyday in 1969.

Yacimovitch, who left journalism to join the party six years ago, secured 56 percent of the vote compared with the 46 percent won by her rival and former mentor Amir Peretz, himself a one-time Labour leader.

A known campaigner on social issues, Yacimovitch says she is open to joining a coalition with the rightwing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and she appears to be staking out the centre ground in Israeli politics.

Although she wasn't raised in the smoke-filled rooms of the Labour party, Yacimovitch managed to defeat two seasoned opponents in a first-round fight on 13 September, finishing neck-and-neck with Peretz, a 28-year veteran of political fights.

It is only the second time that the party, which dominated Israel's political scene for the first few decades after the founding of the state, has elected a woman leader -- the first being Golda Meir who served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974.

But, for the past nine months, the party which was once synonymous with the state has been without a chairman since Defence Minister Ehud Barak jumped ship in January to form the centrist "Independence" movement, taking four other Labour MPs with him.

A skilled debater and former radio and TV presenter, Yacimovitch has benefitted from a warm reception in the local media, with the exception of the left-leaning Haaretz, which last month called her the voice of "the fake left" because of her refusal to take a stand against Israeli settlements.

"I do not consider the entire settlement project to be a sin or a crime," she said in an interview with the paper.

She defines herself as a "humanist social-democrat" and says she would seek a peace settlement under which Israel would keep blocs of settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Born in 1960 in Kfar Saba, a comfortable town near Tel Aviv, she has two children and a degree in behavioural sciences.

Her first job in journalism was with the leftwing daily Al Hamishmar after which she worked in radio and television before entering parliament in 2006.

She held on to her seat during the disastrous election of 2009 when Labour fell to an historic low of 13 seats.

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