Five candidates are vying for the leadership in a Labor Party primary June 28 that some are viewing as crucial in positioning the party for major gains in the general election next year.
"It’s clear that [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s government is in trouble," said Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and former adviser to then-Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "It’s not clear that [Sharon] will get his [Likud] party’s nomination."
Alpher said it was unclear also how the Gaza disengagement slated to begin Aug. 15 would affect Sharon’s nomination.
"That is why there are five candidates for the Labor Party nomination," Alpher explained. "They perceive the crisis in Likud and see this as a possible opportunity to score if not an election victory, then some gains in the next election. Whoever becomes Labor leader thinks he may have a reasonable chance to do something and succeed."
Success for Labor does not just necessarily mean winning the election, Alpher said, but could mean "changing the balance of power."
Likud holds 40 of the 120 seats in the Knesset; Labor has 22.
Two former prime ministers, current party leader Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, are among the five candidates. The others are Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former defense minister and party chairman; Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz; and Matan Vilnai, a minister without portfolio.
On Tuesday, Sharon’s government suffered a symbolic defeat when it lost three no-confidence votes in the Knesset. Opponents could not muster the 61 votes needed to topple the government, but Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the votes were a sign that the Knesset should be disbanded and new elections held.
Rivlin was quoted by Israel Radio as saying that any other Knesset would immediately rule to hold early elections because of its inability "to pass anything other than disengagement."
One opposition party member, Zehava Gal-On, reportedly complained that as the disengagement plan moves forward, political corruption is "running wild" with kickbacks, political appointments, and government financing and support for illegal settlements.
Sharon, 76, told the Knesset that the corruption charges were false and were designed to "smear the Likud" and to undermine "democratic" decisions. But Alpher questioned whether Sharon’s position in his own party is secure enough for him to win renomination as party chair and prime minister candidate.
"My guess is that after disengagement we will be in a rundown to new elections … [during which] Israeli politics will be in paralysis," Alpher said. "Sharon wants to hold onto support on the right within his own party."
Sharon’s chief rival within the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, is against the unilateral disengagement plan, and Alpher noted that there are rumors he might resign as finance minister on the eve of the disengagement, presumably to better position himself politically should there be violence during the disengagement.
It has also been suggested that if Sharon did not get his party’s nomination for party chair, he would form a centrist party with Peres and Tommy Lapid of the Shinui party.
"I doubt Sharon would risk that," said Alpher. "He would retire rather than run on someone else’s list."
But David Newman, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said he is convinced that Sharon will win re-election "unless the right wing puts up an alternative candidate who splits the right-wing vote."
A poll of registered Labor voters released Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Maariv showed Peres, 82, winning the primary, with Peretz second and Barak third. Alpher said Peres favors full-fledged peace talks after the completion of the Gaza disengagement and Barak wants more disengagement on a comprehensive basis. Ben-Eliezer has an image of someone who can deal with security issues, Alpher said, and Peretz is "dovish and peace-oriented, but his main calling card is his position on socio-economic issues where he can be a Labor leader of the sort Labor has not had in years." Vilnai has managed to avoid espousing any specific policies, the analyst said.
Alpher said he found Peretz the "most interesting" of the candidates, and noted that he has "lined up prominent national and security figures to endorse him."
Both Peretz and Ben-Eliezer are Sephardic and Labor, which is generally seen as the party of the Ashkenazim, has never had a Sephardic candidate for prime minister. Alpher pointed out, however, that two-thirds of Sephardim traditionally vote Likud.
With one candidate needing a decisive victory from the 120,000 Labor voters, Alpher said it is likely there will be a runoff between the two top vote getters, with the winner emerging as the party’s choice for prime minister.
Peretz and Ben-Eliezer appear to be making the biggest effort to court the party’s largest voting bloc, Israeli Arabs, with 25,000 voters. Peretz is claiming he best represents that sector because of his chairmanship of the Histadrut, the largest union in Israel whose membership includes workers on the lower end of the economic scale.Barak is discredited among many in the Arab sector because during his tenure as prime minister, 13 Israeli Arabs were killed during rioting in October 2000 at the start of the new intifada.
Amram Mitzna, a former Labor chairman who lost to Sharon in the 2003 general election, said he is supporting Barak because he believes Barak is the only candidate with a chance to challenge the right-wing government of Sharon.
Barak and Yitzchak Rabin are the only Labor candidates for prime minister to defeat their Likud opponents since Golda Meir won in 1974.
"The other four might be leaders of the Labor Party, but they will not become prime minister," Mitzna said. "Only Barak has the special character that is needed to be a prime minister."
But Newman said he does not believe Barak, who was trounced by Sharon in 2001 after his failure at the Camp David talks to achieve peace with the Palestinians, is capable of making the political comeback Netanyahu did in the Likud Party. He pointed out that Netanyahu has "roots in Likud and worked on the fringe of the party," something Barak has not done.
"Barak got knocked out because he offended everyone in his own party," Newman said. "He brought in generals and did things in a supercilious way. … He was convinced four years after Camp David that he had the right way."