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Ayalon Sets Sights on Leadership of Labor Party

After heading Israel’s Navy and internal security services and spending his early retirement campaigning for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ami Ayalon believes that his unique combination of security credentials and peace advocacy can propel him to the helm of the Labor Party — and from there, with luck, to the prime minister’s office.

Ayalon, a freshman Knesset member, has joined hands with respected economist Avishay Braverman, former president of Ben-Gurion University, to mount a formal challenge to the party’s embattled leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Observers see the Ayalon-Braverman alliance as an attempt to present the party and the public with an alternate team that can claim top expertise in both security and domestic policy. That could trump Peretz, the onetime trade union chief, in both his traditional calling card and his uncomfortable new defense mantle.

The two challengers were dismayed after they were personally wooed by Peretz to enter politics last year and then denied the Cabinet posts that Peretz reportedly had promised them. Both men are keenly aware that last summer’s Lebanese war has severely weakened two of their main obstacles: the centrist Kadima party, headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Peretz himself. The question is whether the electorate, which is currently moving rightward, can be wooed back to the center left.

Labor is currently scheduled to hold a leadership primary in May 2007. The early jockeying for power is an indication that Peretz could be forced out sooner.

Ayalon, who has spent months privately lambasting Peretz’s leadership, came out swinging in recent weeks, blasting the defense minister in the Israeli press. He also has defied Peretz politically by demanding that Labor pull out of the Olmert coalition if Olmert brings on board rightist firebrand Avigdor Lieberman in the coming days, as he has vowed to do.

Peretz has publicly opposed Lieberman’s entry into the coalition but is widely expected to oppose a Labor pullout, which most observers say would doom his own leadership.

Ayalon is itching for a fight. “I certainly hope to win the party leadership race,” he told reporters during a press briefing in New York last week, set up by the not-for-profit, nonpartisan advocacy organization The Israel Project.

While no other Labor figures have declared their candidacy formally, Israeli media have reported that former Mossad chief Danny Yatom was considering a run, as was education minister Yuli Tamir. The minister has been in talks with Avshalom Vilan, a leader of the leftwing Meretz-Yahad party, about a possible merger of the two parties into a single center left.

In his New York appearance, Ayalon, 61, spoke of Labor’s need to attract a new audience, especially the young and the Russians. He also said that the party must reflect upon its recent failures, particularly its tepid action on education and its inability to spell out a clear national security strategy.

Despite his harsh words about his party, Ayalon devoted most of his comments in New York to laying out his security and foreign policy agenda. The former admiral refused to pin the blame for the botched planning of the Lebanese war on the military, instead putting it squarely on Israel’s “huge” political leadership failure.

He deemed the Lebanon crisis “very interesting” in that it changed the strategic equation, posing threats as well as opportunities. It challenged traditional Israeli thinking by dooming the doctrine of unilateralism and illustrating the limits of military power. At the same time, it opened opportunities for closer cooperation with Arab countries to counter Iran’s worrisome nuclear ambitions. Such an “axis of pragmatism,” he said, could improve the situation on the Palestinian front, which he called his top priority.

After leaving the Shin Bet security service in 2000, Ayalon joined with Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh to establish the People’s Voice Initiative, a petition campaign advocating a two-state solution that would entail an exchange of territories, dividing Jerusalem but ruling out a Palestinian right of return. More than 400,000 Israelis and Palestinians signed it.

Ayalon still believes that such a solution is feasible, even though he agreed that Israel does not currently have a credible Palestinian interlocutor. Instead of the unilateral steps advocated by Olmert until recently, he favors a diplomatic process that would include the international community and Arab states and use the 2002 Saudi peace plan “as a starting point.” He said that such a scenario could create much-needed hope in the Palestinian community and allow pragmatic forces to gain the upper hand over the rejectionist Hamas.

Ayalon noted that during his time at the helm of the Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000, periods of strong Palestinian support for the peace process were marked by a lower number of Hamas terrorist attempts and more willingness by Palestinian security forces to take action against terrorist groups. He acknowledged, however, that he did not foresee such a scenario unfolding for at least a year.

In the meantime, he advocates a speedy construction of the security fence. “If we have a credible partner in five years, the fence will become the border and it can come down,” he said. “But Israel needs to show it means business.”

Ayalon is clearly hoping that his security credentials will allow him more diplomatic freedom in pushing for innovative solutions.

For instance, he stressed that Israel should not withdraw its forces from the West Bank “unless someone else takes over and creates a stable system.” But he added that this could include international forces, a clear departure from Israel’s traditional position.

In another jab at conventional wisdom, he claimed that nearly half the settlers in the West Bank would be willing to go back within the 1967 borders if they received financial compensation. But he insisted on the need for Israel to consider them as “pioneers” and cater to their needs in a much more comprehensive way than it did for the settlers who came back from Gaza last year — a stance that has provoked criticism from dovish circles.

Ayalon also took issue with the refusal in Washington and Jerusalem to answer Syria’s repeated peace overtures. He said that Israel should respond to Syria by reopening talks based on the failed negotiations of 2000. He suggested that a solution to the Golan Heights dispute could entail separating the issue of sovereignty — which would be Syria’s — from considerations of security, which could allow Israeli forces to remain on the Golan for an extended period.

He added that Israel should consider putting on the table the hot-potato question of the Shebaa Farms, a disputed corner of the Golan claimed by Lebanon, in order to offer additional incentives both to Lebanon and to Syria. A tiny patch of land straddling the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria, Shebaa is considered part of Syria by Israel and by the international community. However, both Syria and Lebanon contend that it is Lebanese territory, a stance that has provided cover for Hezbollah’s continuing military activity against Israel. “If a Lebanese prime minister could bring the Shebaa Farms back instead of appearing as an Israeli collaborator, it would undercut Hezbollah,” Ayalon said.

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