Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Eyes right

The Israeli Labor party must elect a new leader who can fend off a resurgent Likud party

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The results of the Israeli Labor leadership election, scheduled for May 28 with a possible runoff on June 11, will have an immediate impact not just on the party, but on the current Israeli government.

The first decision the new leader will have to make will be whether or not to stay in a failing government. Prime minister and Kadima party leader Ehud Olmert has been severely damaged by a government inquiry which highlighted his failures in the handling of the war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

But while supporting a discredited prime minister is damaging for Labor, the risk of pulling out of the government and triggering early elections, is that it could allow right wing Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into power. The other alternative is that Labor threatening to walk will cause Kadima to replace Olmert as leader in order to keep Labor in the government and avoid elections.

With Sharon permanently incapacitated, Peres too old, and Olmert politically damaged, Israel is crying out for a credible leader to guide the country through its numerous political and security problems.

Despite a disastrous result in the 2006 general election, Netanyahu’s political fortunes have been revived in opposition thanks to the poor performance of the current government, and he currently leads in national opinion polls. The new Labor leader, whoever it is, will have to plan a strategy to defeat Netanyahu at the next general election. Within that challenge lies the greater question of how to rehabilitate and redefine the Israeli left, and the future of the peace process, in an era when Hamas share power in the Palestinian Territories.

There are five candidates in the leadership race, including the current leader and defence minister Amir Peretz. When Peretz defeated Shimon Peres to become leader of the party in November 2005, he offered a new brand of political leadership on the left. Rather than being a member of Israel’s ‘Ashkenazi (Jew of European background) elite’, with a reputation built in the military, Moroccan born Peretz instead made his name as a tough trade union leader. He went into the 2006 election promising to reconnect the Israeli left with the socio-economically disadvantaged, and Labor managed to avoid suffering the same scale of electoral defeat as Netanyahu’s Likud.

Labor finished second behind Kadima, and Peretz led the party into a centre-left coalition. But then, with Olmert refusing to grant Peretz the Treasury portfolio, he took the fateful decision of accepting the high-profile job of defence minister, rather than a less prestigious social-welfare job more suited to his talents.

This decision backfired almost immediately, with war breaking out between Israel and the Lebanese based Shia army of Hezbollah. Peretz found himself a member of a hapless trio, alongside prime minister Ehud Olmert and chief of staff Dan Halutz, lambasted by the public for their poor decision making and incompetent handling of the conflict. This has effectively destroyed Peretz’s credibility and he looks certain to give up leadership of the party to one of his rivals.

The most high profile candidate to succeed him is former prime minister Ehud Barak. Of all the candidates, Barak comes with by far the greatest political and military experience, but also with the heaviest baggage. As former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, and the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, he became prime minister in 1999 by combining impeccable military-security credentials with a commitment to advancing the peace process. However, his short lived tenure was marked by the failure of the Camp David peace talks with Arafat in 2000.

Arafat’s decision to spurn Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza was a blow to the Israeli left from which it is yet to recover. Failure to deliver in the peace process has now been compounded by a perceived strategic failing on the Lebanon front. Barak’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from Southern Lebanon in 2000 allowed Hezbollah to entrench themselves on Israel’s northern border, and the decision is blamed by some for the war last summer.

While few question Barak’s personal abilities and intellect, he also brings a reputation for arrogance and self-centredness, and has focused more on business than politics in recent years. He did not put his name forward to be on Labor’s list of Knesset Members in the 2006 election. However in Israel this would not prevent him from taking a ministerial job or joining the cabinet.

He has been conducting an unusual ‘stealth campaign’, which has offered few clues as to his policy positions. Rather than presenting himself to the public with high-profile interviews and television appearances, he has focused a low key campaign on the party membership. Barak is keen to take the job of defence minister, from which he can continue to rebuild his and the party’s political reputation. As a result he has avoided a commitment to immediately withdraw from the coalition.

Barak’s principal rival, and currently leading in the polls, is former commander of the Israeli Navy and internal intelligence chief, Ami Ayalon. Ayalon’s background mirrors Barak’s combination of military and dovish credentials, and without the baggage of past political failures, but he lacks Barak’s experience.

Ayalon, along with Palestinian academic and leader Sari Nusseibeh, is co-author of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians and his support for negotiations with Syria, Ayalon is not a natural leader of the left. He has forcefully criticised the peace movement in the past for alienating Israel’s majority. However, this could be an advantage when it comes to attracting widespread support in a general election.

Ayalon’s rising status both within the party and with the general public has stuttered slightly in the last few weeks with a number of misplaced remarks. Two days prior to the publication of the Winograd report into the war with Hezbollah, he expressed his willingness to support Olmert in a coalition to prevent Netanyahu taking power. But after Olmert’s heavy criticism at the hands of the inquiry, he made a quick u-turn and has now stated that he will not back an Olmert-led government.

Trailing the front runners in the polls is former minister Ophir Pines-Paz. He was a rising star who resigned from the government in protest in October 2006 when Prime Minister Olmert welcomed the right wing leader of the ‘Yisrael Beitenu’ party, Avigdor Lieberman, into the coalition.

Pines-Paz, the youngest of the candidates at 46, has been most consistent and forthright in his insistence that Labor should leave the current government and that Prime Minister Olmert should resign. He draws respect for acting on his principles, but does not appear to carry enough weight as a prime ministerial candidate at a stage when the public are looking for someone with heavyweight security credentials.

The final candidate, Dani Yatom, a former elite unit commander of the IDF and Director of Mossad, who was security advisor to Barak during his premiership, also favours withdrawing support from Olmert’s government. But polling at somewhere between two and five per cent, his campaign seems more of a play to build his profile than a serious bid for power.

It is indicative that of the five candidates, three, including the two front runners Ayalon and Barak, are former high ranking military officers. With the 2006 election bringing Olmert and Peretz to power, some had speculated that the era of the ‘warrior-turned-politician’ was passing in Israeli politics. But following the recent conflict with Hezbollah, the rise of Hamas and the implosion of the PA, and Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, security has become even more entrenched at the top of the Israeli political agenda.

The hope for the Israeli left is that come elections, their new leader will be able to attract an Israeli centre ground disillusioned with the failure of Kadima, by offering a commitment to security combined with a new way forward in the peace process. The alternative is the return of the Israeli left’s worst nightmare, in the form of Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Toby Greene

is director of research for BICOM and author of Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11

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