The mass social protest movement that took Israel by storm this summer should be a comeback opportunity for Israel's Labor Party, but even that has not energized the dramatically diminished movement that ruled the Jewish state almost unchallenged in its early decades.
The party, which champions such social causes, is picking a new leader Monday at the end of a summer that saw protesters pitching tent camps across the country and flooding city streets in huge weekly demonstrations over soaring living costs and other social ills. The agenda was a dramatic change from past decades, when the only issue that could turn out hundreds of thousands was war and peace with the Arabs.
Polls suggest that the new focus will boost one of the four candidates, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, in the party leadership contest. But the party's fortunes on the national stage still look bleak, and whoever wins Monday's internal vote will likely struggle just to keep the party together.
Yachimovich jumped from a prominent radio and TV career into politics five years ago to try to right many of the long-standing and long-ignored wrongs of Israeli society pushed to the forefront by the spontaneous protest movement _ exorbitant housing costs, rising food and gas prices, and huge income gaps between rich and poor.
Because the internal leadership contest is just for Labor voters, the party is not yet focused on winning supporters on the national stage, where elections are not scheduled to be held until November 2013. But with the protest fresh in the public's mind, Labor still has not taken off in the polls, even with Yachimovich in the party leadership race.
If national elections were to be held today, Labor would capture about 10 of parliament's 120 seats, polls show. After a painful split this year, the party has only eight seats now _ and the internal power struggles that have contributed heavily to its long decline continue: Three of the four candidates in Monday's contest are Labor lawmakers.
"This is a race about a party that is marching toward irrelevancy," said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The goal of whoever wins is to keep the party alive, not to lead it toward leadership or even a significant impact on the political agenda."
The Labor Party led Israel to independence on a socialist platform in 1948, dominating the country for three decades and, more recently in the 1990s, forging peace agreements with the Palestinians and Jordan.
Some 66,000 registered party members were eligible to vote Monday. None of the candidates has the gravitas of such iconic figures as David Ben-Gurion, the nation's founding father, or Yitzhak Rabin, the decorated general who led Israel to two peace agreements before being gunned down by a Jewish ultranationalist assassin in 1995.
The two leading candidates, however, are known for their social activism and focus on economic issues. And that could help them tap into the discontent that fueled the mass demonstrations across Israel this summer _ if they can overcome the vicious infighting that has accompanied the primary race.
The leading candidate, Yachimovich, is a freshman lawmaker admired by some for her efforts on behalf of ordinary Israelis and opposition to tycoons who dominate the Israeli economy. But she alienated others in her previous life as an acid-tongued journalist and recently, by not condemning Jewish settlement construction areas the Palestinians claim for a future state.
Yachimovich said she would rejuvenate her party if elected by implementing the policies the party historically has stood for, like pursuing peace with the Palestinians and introducing social and economic reforms.
"The way to leadership is by returning to the social democratic roots and ethics of the party," she told Israel's Channel 2 TV.
Her main rivals are conventional politicians: Amir Peretz, an ex-union chief who served a short stint as defense minister before being shunted aside after Israel's bungled 2006 war in Lebanon; Amram Mitzna, a dovish general who left politics after he led Labor to a poor showing in 2003 national elections; and Isaac Herzog, a former Cabinet minister.
This already has been an especially rough year for Labor.
In January, party leader Ehud Barak bolted with four other Labor lawmakers to pre-empt a vote within the party to quit the governing coalition. Barak and the other defectors formed a new parliamentary faction and he remained defense minister.
The remnants of Labor now sit in the parliamentary opposition, fighting the government's capitalist policies and the standstill in talks with the Palestinians.
With national elections more than two years away, it would be hard to predict whether Labor would be able to leverage the summer protests to improve its electoral fortunes.
Since the protests erupted in mid-July, tens of thousands of new voters have registered for Labor.
But the party's claim to champion social justice hasn't resonated with voters for years. Labor draws its strength from Israel's more affluent voters, and the country's disadvantaged long ago gravitated to other parties.
A candidate needs 40 percent of the vote to win; otherwise the top two 2 candidates compete in a Sept. 20 runoff.