Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, who will face off in national elections Jan. 28, were sharply reminded this week that within their own parties they are more dovish than their political colleagues.
In the Likud primary this week, hawkish supporters of Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s chief rival, fared particularly well, gaining the top spots available on the party slate. And in the Labor primary, Mitzna found that advocates of his top opponent, former Defense Minister and party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, finished strongest.
Whether these results reflect national ideology or are more about local party politics is a matter of debate, but it was stunning to see how successful the more nationalist candidates fared in both parties at the expense of liberals.
A prime example was the poor showing of Yossi Beilin within Labor. The former justice minister and an architect of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 finished 36th in the voting. (That means he would only win a seat in the next Knesset if Labor won at least 36 seats, which no one predicts will happen.)
The accords created the principle of land for peace, brought Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat out of exile and gave a newly created Palestinian Authority rule over parts of Gaza and the West Bank. A supporter of Mitzna, Beilin, 54, has continued throughout the past 26 months of Palestinian violence to work for a Palestinian state based on Oslo.
Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations insisted that Beilin’s poor showing in the primary was "not a repudiation of anything but rather a recognition that Yossi has been out of the mainstream because of Labor attaching itself to Likud."
Emmanuel Rosenne, a commentator on Israel Army Radio, was more blunt. Noting that a majority of the party agrees with most Israelis that Arafat is irrelevant, he said: "Beilin is the only one who can still say Arafat’s name without foaming at the mouth, and that is the reason why even the Labor Party has vomited him out."
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, formerly a Knesset member from the Meimad party, pointed out also that Beilin had "alienated many Labor people by boycotting the leadership of Ben-Eliezer and working against him. Now all of Ben-Eliezerís supporters went against [Beilin]."
The hawkish supporters of Netanyahu demonstrated that he still wields much influence within the party. Most of those elected to spots positioned to win a seat in the Knesset share Netanyahu’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, something Sharon has said he would eventually support on 40 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of Gaza. (Sharon has also said that peace talks could not begin until there is an end to all violence and calm prevails for a lengthy interim period.)
Supporters of Ben-Eliezer were also crowing after their candidates’ strong showing. From their stronghold, they expect to push the more dovish Mitzna to the center of the political spectrum and press him after the election to rejoin with Likud to form another unity government like the one that collapsed Oct. 30. Mitzna, while not ruling out a unity government, has said Likud first would have to agree to his terms.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that the primary voting had less to do with national issues than with local party politics, like patronage jobs and loyalty.
"You really can’t read ideology or support for Netanyahu or Sharon" into the primary results, he insisted.
"In the Likud primary, it was all about, ‘What can you do for me?’" Steinberg said, noting that the party slate was selected by 2,930 members of the central committee who were mainly interested in power and jobs.
The Labor slate was based upon voting from party members nationwide and the results were based on the campaigns individuals ran.
But regardless of who was elected to the parties’ slates, Steinberg said they will have little say over major issues.
ìThe prime minister will make policies on national grounds and party discipline will hold, and the prime minister controls [party discipline]," he said.
(In the Likud primary, the two top spots on the ballot were set aside for Sharon and Netanyahu; in Labor, three places were held: for Mitzna, Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres. Unlike Israeli elections since 1996, Israelis will be asked to vote for a party only and not have a second, separate vote for prime minister.)
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said he believed the Likud election was based more on personality than ideology.
"There’s a pretty clear Likud outlook and nobody strayed far from it," he said. "The key factor is not about policy regarding the Palestinians but about personality and trust."
Also receiving little support in the Labor primaries were three other leading doves besides Beilin: Yael Dayan, Tsali Reshef and Yossi Katz. But a founder of Peace Now, Yuli Tamir, received wide support and placed ninth on the party list of candidates, virtually assuring her election to the Knesset.
Dayan, daughter of the late Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, quit Labor after the votes were counted and leaders of the far-left Meretz wooed her and Beilin to join their party. Meretz leaders are hoping disaffected Labor supporters among the Israeli public will also gravitate to their party in the general election.
Analyst Gideon Samet in the Israeli daily Haaretz suggested that the "doves were driven out of the coop because in the current Israeli climate, Labor felt safer running with people who don’t mention peace too much."
The question now for Mitzna, according to David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is whether to moderate his stance to reflect his party’s views or "consolidate his support on the left as part of a long term view."
"The primaries suggest that the composition of the slate might put pressure on him to pursue a more centrist strategy," he said. "But you can argue that whatever he gains in the middle he might lose in terms of the left. … So he may figure that if he is not going to win, to look respectable he needs to target support from Israeli Arabs, Meretz supporters and others."
Ben-Eliezer supporters are said to be preparing to flex their muscles next week when they plan to oppose Mitzna in his support for the adoption of the national budget. And should Labor fare poorly in the national election, as is widely expected, they are poised to call for new party elections to unseat him as chairman.
Samet said that during the coming two months, Mitzna will "find himself under pressure in the party to sweep his dovish ideas under the campaign’s carpets."
Should he do that and chart a more centrist course, he will have a hard time explaining why he should not join a unity government, Samet argued.
But by joining a unity government, Mitzna would be dooming any chances of peace with the Palestinians for the "foreseeable future," according to Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If he resists the calls for unity, Siegman said, Sharon would be forced to cobble together a government of extreme right-wing parties.
"There is a good chance of such a government collapsing within a year," he said. "Mitzna might then come to power and change dramatically the prospects for a renewed peace process.
"But if he moves closer to the center [in the next two months], he offers no real alternative to Sharon, who has cleverly positioned himself close to the center as well. … In fact, he is a stealth right-wing extremist," according to Siegman, a frequent critic of Israel’s stance on the peace process.
Paradoxically, Siegman noted, Sharon enjoys "something like 70 percent support [from the general public] despite not producing what he promised when elected a year-and-a-half ago: peace, security and prosperity."
In addition, he said, although Sharon insists that he will not remove settlements (he called the settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip just as important as the city of Tel Aviv) a majority of Israelis are prepared to give up settlements for peace.
A poll published last week in the Israeli daily Maariv found that 64 percent of Israelis would support a Palestinian state if terror attacks stopped and Arafat was no longer in power, and 61 percent said they would support the evacuation of all settlements in the Gaza Strip in return for peace.
In addition, 55 percent said they would support the evacuation of most settlements in the West Bank were a peace accord worked out.
The return to party-only voting may serve to weaken support for smaller parties. Makovsky noted that one poll last week showed Labor holding on to the 25 seats it currently holds and Likud jumping from 19 to 40 seats. Together, that would give them 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
The only small party that might actually increase in support is Shinui, which Makovsky said "is tapping into middle class resentment of higher taxes and an anti-religious feeling."