Labor Chairman Battles Rebellion Within His Party

By Vita Bekker

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz is facing an internal rebellion led by five high-profile lawmakers who are criticizing his leadership on several fronts.

The lawmakers — three retired generals, a former university president and an experienced diplomat — say the party is losing much of its credibility because it has not done enough to deliver on promises made before Israel’s general elections in March to find ways to reduce poverty and joblessness. Some members of the group are upset that Peretz, as defense minister, and other Labor Cabinet members have not done more to press for negotiations with the Palestinians.

All five of the Labor rebels were snubbed by Peretz when it came to divvying up the party’s Cabinet slots in the Kadima-led coalition government, but they insist they are not motivated by personal slights.

The escalating power struggle marks a sharp turn from several months ago, when Peretz was seen as a dove who would lean heavily on Labor’s former security chiefs while pressing the party’s domestic positions. Now it is the generals, along with other critics, who say the party needs to do more to stress its social positions.

In the current power struggle, they say they are also opposing what they describe as an attempt by Peretz and his allies to extend their influence over the party’s local branches and other internal institutions.

“The feeling is that the mistakes the Labor Party is committing will make it difficult for it to again become a ruling party,” said Ami Ayalon, one of the so-called “rebels” and a decorated ex-admiral who formerly served as head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service. “This can’t be a discussion to which we’ll wake up half a year before the next elections. This isn’t a personal battle. It’s a real battle about the direction of the party.”

In addition to Ayalon, the front criticizing Peretz includes Dani Yatom, former director of the Mossad; Matan Vilnai, a retired major general whose military career included serving as deputy commander of the 1976 Israeli mission to free the hostages of a Palestinian hijacking in Entebbe, Uganda; Avishay Braverman, who served as president of Ben-Gurion University before joining Labor last year, and Colette Avital, a former diplomat who served as Israel’s consul general in New York City and subsequently as the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director in charge of Western Europe.

The five meet at least once a week at one of their homes, the Knesset or other places to discuss their ideas and explore ways to win support from other party members, Yatom told the Forward. They are also preparing for the upcoming meetings of the party’s main committee, when key decisions will be made, including determination of the timetable of elections for the leadership of internal institutions such as local party branches. Those elections are key because of the influence of those institutions on such important decisions as choosing the party’s candidates for government ministerial posts.

Some recent polls back up the group’s concern about the party’s image. A survey published May 30 by the Tel Aviv-based Geocartography Knowledge Group found that 54% of Israelis think the Labor Party has not fulfilled its pre-elections campaign promises on social issues, compared with 49% who would say the same about Kadima and 41% who would the same about the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Still, some analysts claim that the rebels are primarily motivated by Peretz’s failure to award them with ministerial positions.

“Their main motivation is personal frustration,” said Abraham Diskin, professor of political science at Hebrew University. “At least four of them thought they would be ministers, and they didn’t get those positions or any compensation for it.”

But members of the group deny being motivated by personal ambition. They also deny speculation that they’re mulling jumping ship to another party, or that they’re aiming to remove Peretz from his position as party chairman. But several of them are not ruling out a run for chairman in the next party election, which will take place in about one year.

“Peretz did promise me that I’ll become defense minister, and it’s no secret that I wanted the job,” Ayalon told the Forward. “It wasn’t right for him not to fulfill his promise, but that’s not related to the current dispute. Which is why I don’t attack him personally today in his role as defense minister.”

Ayalon actually has praised some of Peretz’s decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, earlier this week he supported the defense minister’s opposition to a broad Israeli offensive in Gaza. The Israeli military was pushing for the offensive in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot, which followed the killing of eight Palestinian civilians in a June 9 blast on a Gaza beach.

The Labor lawmakers claim that under Peretz’s leadership, the party has made several key mistakes since the elections. They say the party would have been better off with the finance or health ministries, which better reflect Labor’s social and economic agenda, than with defense or some of the other portfolios obtained by Peretz in coalition talks with Kadima.

Ayalon said Peretz never led an internal discussion on the party’s conditions for joining the coalition. He and the other lawmakers have also criticized Peretz’s opposition, after he became defense minister, to cutting the defense budget; before the election, Peretz had demanded such a reduction.

Some of the disgruntled lawmakers think that Labor is not doing enough to influence decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We think we should press much more from within the government for negotiations,” Yatom said. “We think that if Ehud Olmert won’t opt for negotiations, then he’ll go against the interests of the State of Israel.”

In the end, Yatom added, “As a group of five, we know we have much more power than we would have had as individuals in order to convince others to adopt our ideas.”

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