Peretz Seen As Lebanon War Casualty
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Peretz Seen As Lebanon War Casualty

Analysts this week had conflicting views of how the Winograd Commission’s report would impact the two leading contenders in the Labor Party’s May 28 election for party leader. But one thing is clear — party leader Amir Peretz may have been fatally hurt in his bid for re-election.

The report said Peretz, in his capacity as defense minister during last summer’s war with Hezbollah, had a “lack of [military] experience and knowledge [that] prevented him from challenging in a competent way both the IDF, over which he was in charge, and the prime minister.” Therefore, it said, Peretz’s actions “impaired Israel’s ability to respond well to its challenges.”

“I assume [the report] hurt Peretz,” said Colette Avital, a Labor Party member of the Knesset who is running to become Israel’s first president.

Gabrielle Sheffer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he believed the commission was “more generous” to Peretz than it was to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because it chalked up his mistakes to inexperience.

“So in a way it excused him,” he said.

Peretz’s chief challengers for party chairman are former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

The commission took a swipe at Barak without mentioning him by name when it said Hezbollah’s ability to sit on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon was because of Barak’s “unilateral withdrawal” from Israel’s security belt in southern Lebanon in May 2000. And it said the Israeli military’s lack of proper training and flaws in its organizational structure were the “responsibility of the military commanders and political leaders in charge years [earlier].

”These findings, Sheffer said, “might reduce [Barak’s] chances to become leader of the Labor Party.” On the other hand, he said, Ayalon might be considered “too dovish.” He noted that Ayalon wants to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to withdraw from the West Bank.

“There are some in the party who will say they do not want this leftist running the Labor Party,” Sheffer said, despite the fact Ayalon was a former commander of the Israeli Navy who was awarded Israel’s highest award, the Medal of Valor.Ayalon has reportedly said that if he is elected party chairman, he will withdraw Labor’s support from Olmert’s coalition government, which almost certainly would trigger new elections.

But Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said such early elections (elections are not scheduled for another two years) could cause the re-election of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party. A poll released this week said 26 percent of the electorate would like to see him re-elected, far ahead of any other candidate.

Aronson said he believed that if Barak wins the Labor leadership post, he would replace Peretz as defense minister, thus allowing the Kadima-dominated coalition government to continue.

No analyst interviewed offered an opinion on who would win the Labor Party primary, saying the polls show Barak and Ayalon virtually neck-and-neck less than a month from the election.

But Aronson said Barak’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon seven years ago was a decision “made in haste and that now appears to be questionable. … He ran from Lebanon and it led to the war.”

But another analyst said Barak’s credentials – he was Israel’s most highly decorated general and served as the IDF’s chief of staff – might serve to give him the edge over Ayalon among voters who want a strong and experienced defense minister as war clouds again loom in the distance.

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