Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Another chance for Labor?

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By Amotz Asa-El  

 

Israel’s Labor Party, long eulogised for its repeated electoral failures over the past three decades, is increasingly full of hope that it may finally have arrived at the brink of a more positive era in its history.

Peretz: On the way out?

While all eyes focused on Lieut. Gen. Dan Halutz’s resignation as IDF chief of staff, Labor has been preparing for the May 28 primary election in which its embattled leader, Defence Minister Amir Peretz, will face four contenders, all of whom blame him for what they portray as last summer’s failed war in Lebanon.

Beyond its personal dimension, the contest highlights varied political programs and potential historic implications.

On the personal level, the 55-year-old Peretz’s rivals hail from backgrounds markedly different to his. Peretz was born in Morocco and, since his arrival in Israel as a child, has lived in the relatively remote town of Sderot, just outside the Gaza Strip. He served a term as mayor before becoming the leader of the Histadrut, the umbrella organisation of the labor unions. His rivals are three retired generals about a decade older than him, and one former student activist a decade younger than him.

The generals at play are former Prime Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, former Navy Commander Ami Ayalon, and the former head of the Mossad spy agency, Danny Yatom. The fourth candidate is former Culture Minister Ofir Pines-Paz. The last two are considered long shots: Yatom is expected to withdraw at some point and endorse his longtime friend Barak, while Pines-Paz is expected to make do with a respectable result that will make it impossible for the next party leader to ignore him. The real race, therefore, is among Peretz, Barak and Ayalon.

Barak as a soldier was a daring commando, but his leadership style as prime minister made many enemies before he suffered the worst electoral defeat of any PM in Israeli history in 2001. He now says he has changed, and hopes to stage a spectacular comeback based on his military credentials. Barak says in daily meetings with party activists that he is the man best suited for rehabilitating the military, depicted by many in the Israel press as disoriented and poorly trained in the aftermath of last year’s war in which Peretz’s promise to eradicate Hezbollah remained unfulfilled.

In this, he is implicitly saying that Peretz’s stint at the Defence Ministry has been an abysmal failure, a view shared by much of the public according to polls, all of which show Peretz’s approval ratings well under 10 percent. Yet there is no reliable indication, for now, whether Labor’s membership is impressed with Barak’s insistence that he is a transformed man, one who after spending some time recently in India has learned to listen to people, heed advice, and take decisions in large forums.

Moreover, even if this particular insistence proves convincing, Barak’s candidacy also challenges the party’s agenda in its lack of a social message.

The ever simply-dressed and thickly mustached Peretz’s prime ministerial bid has been novel in the emphasis it placed on social affairs, and the authority and authenticity with which he discussed issues like pensions, job security, minimum wages and single-mother allowances. It represented a sharp departure from the orientations of the traditional products of Israel’s political-military complex such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak, and it apparently offered a route back to Labor’s original source of power - the working class.

Yet Ariel Sharon, in his last political deed, managed to take the wind of out Peretz’s sails by establishing the Kadima Party, which promised to both transcend and undo Israel’s classic party structure, dominated for decades by archrivals Likud and Labor. Though Peretz ended up facing Olmert rather than Sharon, he failed to expand Labor’s following in last year’s general election, where Labor ended up with just over 15 percent of the electorate, while Kadima won one-in-four votes. After the recent Lebanon conflict, both are now lagging in the polls behind the opposition Likud, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following the elections, Peretz made two more moves that his opponents now use against him: first, in becoming Olmert’s key coalition ally, he abandoned his social commitments and assumed the role of defence minister, and secondly, he became identified with the war that a majority of Israelis consider poorly managed and under-accomplished. Peretz, who arrived at the Defence Ministry short on both military expertise and political experience - he had never even been a deputy minister - is now being attacked by his opponents for having accepted a job that Labor did not need and he could not perform.

Barak’s claim that he would make an ideal defence minister will likely not register well with Labor members who were captured by Peretz’s original social gospel. If anything, such Labor members will recall how Barak himself also promised, prior to his election in 1999, to focus on domestic issues, only to totally dedicate himself, to defence issues and foreign affairs once in power. Then again, Labor’s membership is aware that the broader public in Israel now wants the IDF’s originality, daring and deterrence refurbished, and that if Barak delivers on these, then Labor, will be credited with an act of healing that much of Israel now impatiently awaits.  

At the other end of the spectrum is the Pines-Paz candidacy. The former Peace Now activist resigned from Olmert’s cabinet last fall in protest of far-Right leader Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as Minister for Strategic Threats. Pines-Paz has no pretensions to military expertise.

What Pines-Paz represents is the land-for-peace activism with which segments of Labor have been associated for the past three decades, and which some of its leaders have been playing down in recent years, in the wake of this decade’s Palestinian violence. Pines-Paz, for instance, has been deriding Peretz for failing to evacuate illegal outposts in the West Bank, and at the same time remains convinced that a peace agreement with the PA is feasible and desirable, despite Hamas’ rise to power. Whether Labor voters are prepared for such a ticket remains to be seen.

Ami Ayalon, the current front runner, offers a mixture of the other candidates’ agendas. Militarily, he not only commanded the navy and was decorated for his heroism in Naval Commando operations, he was also tasked with reforming the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret service, following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Though lacking any background in its work, Ayalon rehabilitated that agency in a way that later allowed it to assume a leading position in Israel’s war on terror. Ayalon can therefore be “sold” as a renovator who can do for the IDF what he did previously for the Shin Bet.

Economically, Ayalon has struck an alliance with Avishai Braverman, formerly Ben-Gurion University President and a World Bank economist, now a frustrated Labor backbencher. Braverman’s inspiration is Britian’s Tony Blair. On the one hand, he persuaded Amir Peretz during last year’s election campaign to stop attacking the very concept of privatisation and cease preaching tax increases. At the same time, he attacked Benjamin Netanyahu’s free market oriented economic policies, saying they focused on the upper classes and usually ignored the middle classes.

Braverman may enhance Ayalon’s image as a middle choice between elitism and populism, claiming that under them Labor will be the best ticket for the middle class.

The Ayalon-Braverman ticket is also unique in that it couples two very different people, the former a stocky, 5’8”, bald sailor, spy and peace negotiator, the latter a lofty, 6’3” bespectacled academic who spent his best years developing the Negev Desert. This very amalgamation, and even just the respect with which they speak of each other’s abilities, is unique in a political system that in recent years has repeatedly bred leaders who were reluctant to share the public limelight, let alone power, with anyone.

The two seem to be getting along fine, and each happily leaves it for the other to deal with what he is best at.

Yet what may play best into the pair’s hands is the growing quest in Israel for a “clean ticket,” one that represents people who had no role in last summer’s Lebanese conflict and no relationship to the many corruption scandals that currently cloud Israeli politics. None of Labor’s candidates is personally implicated in any corruption scandal right now, but Peretz has shared a political bed with Olmert, and Barak is part of Olmert’s social circle. Similarly, the two are part of the Lebanese situation, Peretz as last summer’s Defence Minister, while Barak was the prime minister who ordered the unilateral retreat that created the vacuum which Hezbollah turned into a hostile mini-state.

Ayalon and Braverman are well above all this fray, and this is what their campaign will trumpet. “In Israel’s national priorities, corruption is an existential threat no less than Iran,” says Braverman. Add to this the pair’s economic middle way and Ayalon’s secret-service background, and you may have a ticket that will not only win over Labor, but has at least a chance to finally restore its appeal to the mainstream electorate.

During the first 15 years after its historic loss of power to Menachem Begin in 1977, Labor was led solidly by Shimon Peres. In the subsequent 15 years, it changed leaders seven-odd times. Now Labor activists hope that amid the political mayhem touched off by last summer’s fighting and by this month’s resignation of the Chief of Staff, Labor will land on its feet and emerge as the war’s unlikely winner.

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