Parties Maneuver as Political Map Shifts

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — Members of Israel’s Labor Party went to the polls this week to choose a slate of candidates for the upcoming Knesset elections. They gave top slots to a pair of 40-something reformers: former housing minister Isaac Herzog and former interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz.

Other big winners included a brace of newcomers who decided to enter politics last fall, following the upset victory of union leader Amir Peretz as the party’s standard-bearer. Top performers among the newcomers were Ben-Gurion University President Avishai Braverman, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and television journalist Sheli Yachimovich.

Familiar party veterans, including ex-generals Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Matan Vilnai and Ephraim Sneh, followed them. Peace Now co-founder Yuli Tamir and ex-diplomat Colette Avital also followed.

Israel’s 120-member Knesset is chosen by proportional representation. Parties present ranked lists of nominees, and voters cast ballots for the party of their choice. Each party wins a share of the Knesset’s seats proportional to its share of the popular vote.

Current polls show Labor winning between 17 and 20 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 28 general elections. Kadima, the party formed last fall by ailing Prime Minister Sharon and now headed by his deputy, Ehud Olmert, is currently projected to win 44 seats.

The Likud, which won the last election in 2003 with a commanding 40 seats, is projected in current polls to win 15 seats. The Likud chose its new candidates’ slate last week in balloting by the 3,000-member central committee. Top ranking went to relative hardliners, with nine of the first 15 slots going to candidates who opposed last summer’s popular Gaza withdrawal. All 15 are members of the outgoing Knesset. The slate’s hawkish tilt is expected to hurt party leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to project a moderate image during the campaign.

“We were elected with the message that we are going to change things,” top Likud vote-getter Moshe Kahalon told Israel Radio. “The Likud will no longer make decisions in the dead of night.”

The Likud slate is seen as appealing to Israel’s Russian immigrant community, some one-fifth of the population, thanks to strong showings by former prisoner of conscience Natan Sharansky and his longtime ally, Yuli Edelstein.

Just before the central committee vote, Netanyahu pulled the Likud out of Olmert’s Cabinet over the opposition of its four serving ministers. Party insiders said that the move hurt the showing of two popular ministers, Danny Naveh and Limor Livnat. The ministers are moderates who were forced to run without the benefit of incumbency. Both won apparently safe slots on the Knesset slate, but are ranked below relative unknowns whose hardline views are popular among central committee members.

The resignation of the Likud ministers left Olmert presiding over a six-member Cabinet while personally holding an unprecedented 15 portfolios. Olmert had planned to name six new ministers this week, including three Kadima allies and three defectors from the Labor Party: Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik. His plans were scotched, however, when the three Laborites were forced to resign their Knesset seats, barring them from joining the Cabinet.

Under Israeli election law, lawmakers who defect to one party from another cannot run on their new party’s slate in the next election. The law also specifies that when the Knesset dissolves and heads for elections, the caretaker Cabinet may appoint ministers only from the ranks of the Knesset.

The three Laborites had hoped to square the circle by retaining their Labor membership while working with Kadima. That maneuver was ruled illegal this week by the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, forcing the three to quit the Knesset now in order to re-enter it after March 28.

The stormiest party maneuvering of the week was in the centrist, anti-clerical Shinui Party, which holds 15 seats in the current Knesset but is projected to win only four or five seats in March. Balloting in the party’s central committee resulted in party leader Yosef Lapid narrowly retaining his seat, while Ron Leventhal, a 35-year-old lawyer from Tel Aviv, ousted his deputy, Avraham Poraz. Rebels allied to Leventhal won most of the top slots on the party slate, prompting most of the party’s best-known leaders to announce a mass defection.

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