TEL AVIV — Three weeks before the primary elections for the leadership of the Labor Party, the sleepy dowager of Israeli politics suddenly seems abuzz with activity. Five men are battling desperately to lead Israel’s second-largest political party and occupy the seat once held by the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin.
It is a curious battle, considering that nobody expects the winner of the June 28 primary to become Israel’s next prime minister. Optimists see the contest as a fight for the right to rebuild Labor as a fighting opposition once Sharon’s disengagement is completed. Cynics call it an opportunity to try reviving a corpse. Still, the fight is as bitter and ruthless as Israel has seen in a long time.
Of the five contenders, two have been to the top already — namely former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. A third, former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is the only Labor chairman who never had the chance to lead his party into national elections, having been deposed in midterm by Amram Mitzna in 2003.
The other two contenders have emerged as possible spoilers from the party’s pre-primary registration period, which ended this past Tuesday. One, of them, Matan Vilnai, is in the traditional Labor mold: an Ashkenazic ex-general like Rabin, Barak and Mitzna. The other, Amir Peretz, is a dark horse — in more ways than one.
The stronger of the spoilers is Vilnai. A popular general, he was expected to become Israel’s military chief of staff five years ago but was edged out by Shaul Mofaz, the current defense minister. A child of Israel’s old establishment (his father, Ze’ev, was a legendary geo-grapher and tour guide), Vilnai enjoys the support of several traditional Labor power bases. Chief among them are kibbutz members, who make up some 10% of the 120,000 people registered to vote in the primaries. The kibbutzniks are considered centrist, mostly Ashkenazic, motivated mainly by questions of defense and security. They supported Rabin against Peres throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and voted heavily for Barak when he took over the party in 1997. But like others, they were disappointed in Barak’s performance as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, and they appear hesitant to give him a second chance. Vilnai, a firm centrist, has been a hardworking Cabinet minister since leaving the army, and he is untainted by the political and personal missteps associated with Barak. He stands to receive a large proportion of kibbutznik and other Labor traditionalist voters.
Peretz, chairman of the Histadrut — the still-mighty trade union federation — is a completely different political animal. Moroccan born, he entered politics as a union activist in the Negev development town of Sderot, went on to become mayor and then a Knesset back-bencher, but was never considered leadership material by the party’s Ashkenazic-dominated old guard. In 1994 he left the party, along with his friend and ally Haim Ramon. Together they mounted an unprecedented insurgency that ousted Labor from control of the Histadrut, its main power base. A year later, Ramon, the better known of the two, returned to Labor, where he has been under a cloud ever since because of his role in downsizing the union. Peretz stayed on as Histadrut chief, steadily gaining popularity as the main opponent of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s neoliberal economic policies. He finally rejoined Labor last year, bringing his own power base with him.
Peretz represents a unique prospect for Labor. The party has been obsessed for years with its image as a shrinking bastion of the old elites, out of touch with “the people.” Peretz, the immigrant child of the Other Israel, is everything the party isn’t. Even the ex-generals, who once wouldn’t have dreamed of playing second fiddle to someone like Peretz, are beginning to understand his potential. At press time, he was expecting an imminent declaration of support from former navy commander and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon. Vilnai is said to have reached an understanding with him to join forces behind whoever does best in the primaries.
When he spoke to the Forward this week, Peretz estimated that some 30,000 newly registered Labor members are his supporters, “and unlike others, they will be there on Election Day.” This alone, he believes, should be enough to move him into the two-man runoff that is expected. He also believes that he will get a significant share of votes among the 25,000 Israeli Arab voters, most of whom were signed up by backers of his rival Ben-Eliezer.
These voters are a clear example of Labor’s dire condition: It is doubtful that any of them would vote for the party in the general elections.
None of them, however, is likely to vote for Barak, whom many Israeli Arabs hold responsible for the killing of 13 Arab demonstrators by the police in October 2000, shortly after the outbreak of the intifada. The hostility in the Arab community only compounds the former prime minister’s problems. Out of politics for three years since his crushing defeat by Ariel Sharon in 2001, Barak thought his comeback would be a cakewalk. Labor seemed downtrodden and leaderless, leading Barak to calculate that even those who didn’t like him would see him as the only real alternative. In private conversations with friends he repeatedly pointed to the example of Netanyahu, who was humiliated at the polls in 1999 — by Barak — and returned after a brief hiatus as his Likud Party’s top crowd-pleaser.
However, Barak appears unable to grasp the level of disappointment and hostility he aroused during his tenure as prime minister. Even competing candidates like Peretz and Vilnai joined hands against him. Unofficial polls — it is very difficult to poll the Labor electorate, and better polls should be available only after the registration is closed — have him now trailing, perhaps even fifth among the candidates.
The nominal front-runner is 81-year-old Shimon Peres, the immovable natural force of Israeli politics. He has done little to campaign or to bring in new loyalists, relying mainly on his image among party members as a figure of stature and prestige. A force on the national scene since the early 1950s, Peres casts a shadow over every other Labor politician, chairman or otherwise. He is also considered unelectable by much of the Israeli public. Choosing him for party leader, a distinct possibility, would be an admission of weakness by the party.
Should Barak fail in his last-ditch effort to delay the elections or disqualify as many Peretz supporters as possible, the first round would indeed be held June 28.
Newspaper polls of the general electorate in recent weeks have consistently shown Peres leading the pack, with Vilnai close behind. Peretz and Ben-Eliezer are battling for a distant third, but Peretz appears to be rising. Barak trails in the single digits. But no polls, however, show any of the Labor candidates beating Sharon — nor, for that matter, Netanyahu, should he replace Sharon as Likud leader.