The future of the once-dominant Labor Party as a major player in Israeli politics is at stake as party voters go to the polls Tuesday to select their candidate in January’s general election.
An internal Labor Party poll placed Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna ahead of his nearest challenger, former Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, by 18 percent. The third candidate in the race, veteran politician Haim Ramon, trailed Mitzna by 30 percent.
Colette Avital, a Ben-Eliezer supporter, said she is confident that in December the Labor Party would craft a compelling message and “we will start seeing the real campaign.
“I think the social elements of it will gain a lot of momentum — poverty and the poor people,” she said. “This is the flag we will be bearing.”
The Labor primary comes against a backdrop of another horrific terrorist attack this week in which a Palestinian gunman shot and killed five people — including a woman and her 4- and 5-year-old sons — at Kibbutz Metzer inside Israel. The attack was seen by many as reinforcing the Israeli public’s shift to the political right, thereby hurting Labor and helping the Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
A poll of Likud Party voters released Tuesday night by an Israeli television station showed Sharon ahead of his challenger, foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by 18 percentage points — a lead that continues to widen ahead of the Likud primary Nov. 28. The Market Watch poll found that if the primary was held this week, Sharon would win by 52 percent to Netanyahu’s 34 percent, with 13 percent undecided. A poll taken by the Netanyahu campaign showed Sharon ahead 39.8 percent to Netanyahu’s 36.4 percent, with 20.6 percent undecided.
Bobby Brown, a former aide to Netanyahu, said Likud leaders were working behind the scenes to have Sharon and Netanyahu agree to avoid a primary fight and share the prime minister’s seat — Sharon for two years and Netanyahu for the following two years.
“People in the Likud don’t want a fight and would like to see an agreed upon rotation,” he said. “The feeling is that Likud could massively increase seats in the next election and that the one thing that could interfere with that is internecine fighting. Labor is committing hara kiri and Labor should not follow suit.”
Polls last week showed the Likud Party gaining seats in the Knesset — increasing from the current 19 seats to 30 — while Labor, which now has 25 seats, dropping to 15. The leader of the party with the largest number of seats becomes prime minister.
Both Avital and Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said they believe Mitzna will not get 40 percent of the vote Tuesday, necessitating a run-off election Nov. 25.
Alpher said that if both Mitzna and Netanyahu were to win their respective primaries, the national election would be a lot closer because Netanyahu is not as popular as Sharon with the general public.
“If Mitzna presents a real alternative … there is no doubt he will close the gap somewhat,” said Alpher. “It could make a significant difference.”
Until Oct. 30, Labor had been part of Sharon’s unity government. It must now work to establish a distinct identity and present a cogent reason why Israelis should vote for its candidates at a time when the Oslo peace accords it authored in 1993 have been widely discredited.
“If Mitzna is selected [in the primary], people like me will say that Labor is another left-wing fringe party that will compete with Meretz and that there is no real expectation of it governing again in the near future,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
Noting that Mitzna repeated Tuesday that he would negotiate with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat if necessary to work out a peace accord with the Palestinians, Steinberg said that pledge “is not going to resonate with the Israeli public.”
There are 107,000 Labor Party members and Steinberg said Tuesday’s primary would determine if there are “enough of the Ben-Eliezer hawkish wing left in the party” for him to be nominated. If Mitzna wins the nomination, it is a signal that Labor is still dominated by the left wing camp of Yossi Beilin, which Steinberg said “won’t help it much” in the national election.
The theme of Netanyahu’s campaign is the economy and Sharon’s poor handling of it. Sharon insists the economy will bounce back once terrorism is ended. A survey released last week by the National Insurance Institute found that nearly one in five Israelis — 1.17 million people — were living below the poverty line in 2001, including half a million children, or 27 percent of the country’s youth.
Both parties’ candidates are also stressing their plan for providing security against terrorist attacks.
Ben-Eliezer said he would present a peace plan the Palestinians would not refuse; Ramon said he would not even try to negotiate and simply press forward with building a fence between Israelis and Palestinians and then unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank and Gaza. Mitzna said he would try to negotiate before unilaterally withdrawing behind a fence.
Netanyahu said the first thing he would do is expel Arafat. Only then, he said, “will there be an opening for peace.” But Sharon insists that security cannot be secured through “slogans and magic solutions” and that Israel must continue to fight terrorism “without disruptions and any external pressures.”
News of the cold-blooded kibbutz attack shocked even those Israelis who have become hardened to terrorist attacks. Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion, described the killer as a “beast.”
He noted that the residents of Kibbutz Metzer, situated only about a mile from the Israeli border with the West Bank, are mostly left-wing Jews who fostered coexistence with their Israeli Arab neighbors and support a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
“Coexistence can be gained only by being strong,” Goldstein countered.
“I love them, but they are children,” he said of the kibbutz residents.
Dov Avital, a member of the kibbutz and its economic director, said in the wake of the attack: “I hope we find the strength to keep in line with our beliefs. … This is a community that intends to live for generations with good relations between Arabs and Jews. We have invested our lives in it and we are not letting these guys destroy it.”
Arnon Soffer, a terrorism expert at the University of Haifa, pointed out that the residents of this kibbutz had announced that it did not want a wall built to separate them from their Arab neighbors.
“Now do you see what happened?” he asked. “The Palestinian attack has left them confused at the moment. … I think it may change them. Since this morning, people have been working quickly to build a fence around the kibbutz.”
Dov Avital said the gunman had infiltrated the kibbutz by finding a vulnerable spot in the fence that surrounded the kibbutz. He said a new, electronic fence was now being erected to detect intruders. He said the kibbutz residents had objected – and continue to object – to the building of the large security fence if it cut off their Palestinian neighbors from their olive fields. He said the kibbutz residents have said they would give up some of their land to ensure that did not happen because the olive fields are the Palestinians’ livelihood.
Asked about the upcoming elections, Avital said he believed that 90 percent of the kibbutz residents would vote for the left-wing Meretz Party.
But Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said he believed the kibbutz attack simply drives more Israelis to the right.
“People understand what President [George W.] Bush said clearly in his [June 24] speech, that as long as the present leadership of Yasir Arafat is in place, there is no chance for security or peace,” he said. “The only question is should we wait until after [a war with Iraq], exile him or ignore him. The kibbutz attack was done by Arafat’s own organization, so he can no longer hide behind the skirts of the Islamic Jihad or Hamas. Nobody in his right mind is going to buy his charade that he is going to establish a commission of inquiry.”
Sharon and Dov Avital both said the kibbutz had been deliberately targeted. Avital noted that the gunman had passed other Jewish communities before reaching it. And Sharon said it proves that the terrorists “are out to kill anyone who is Jewish,” even those of the extreme left who believe in coexistence.