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A week's hard Labor

Last update - 21:49 08/12/2005
By Akiva Eldar

Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz swears he can't understand where the rumor about hit lists came from. The chairman is even prepared to write down on a slip of paper how, in his estimation, the top level of the Labor faction in the next Knesset will look. On condition that I promise that the names will appear in alphabetical order. All he needs is for someone to get hurt. The new/veteran immigrant to the party is fed up with the veterans? complaining. Maybe he has had time to remember that Labor is not his former party, One Nation, which sailed smoothly along unruffled waters with one leader and one opinion.

How fortunate it is that A comes before B. Thus it is possible to list in first place (after the chairman, of course) Ayalon, Ami, formerly of the Shin Bet general security service, the star of the focus groups. Ben-Eliezer, Binyamin, in second place. Next on the list, in alphabetical order, completely by chance, is Braverman, Avishay, another new face. After him, Herzog, Isaac (Bouji). From here on, Hebrew alphabetical order diverges from English; Peretz listed the following names in Hebrew, of course: Vilnai, Matan; Sneh, Ephraim; Police Major General (ret.) Amit, Aryeh and down at the letter peh there is Pines-Paz, Ophir. Eitan Cabel is installed at seventh place, which is reserved for the party director general, and Rabbi Michael Melchior in 10th place, which is reserved for Meimad. Simhon, Shalom is in 16th place, the slot for the moshavim. Peretz is proud of the reservation of four realistic slots for women - 5, 9, 12 and 15. He is betting on Avital, Colette, Yachimovich, Shelly and Tamir, Yuli. The fourth slot, the one that no doubt would have been taken by Itzik, Dalia had she not switched her affiliation to Kadima, remains open. Peretz notes that in addition to Itzik, five more colleagues from the top leadership (Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon, Avraham Burg, Amram Mitzna and Avraham [Beiga] Shochat) will not contend in the coming primaries.

So why is everyone cranky, nevertheless? A forgiving smile spreads across Peretz's face. He says that this is a known method, the (Likud MK) Michael (Miki) Eitan method; everyday you scream that you are being slaughtered and in the end it is ensured that you will be brought onto the list just so you won't say that you are being slaughtered. It emerges from what Peretz himself has to say that the Miki Eitan method also works in the Labor Party. In the opposite direction. So that it won't be said that he is slaughtering his rivals' supporters, Peretz has asked the secretary-general of One Nation, Dr. Avi Bitzur of Givatayim, to withdraw his candidacy and make way for the mayor, Effie Stanzler, from the Peres camp. Peretz's associates expect that he will make a similar request of Rachel Turjeman, his woman in the Histadrut labor federation.

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The events of this past week did not augur well for Peretz. First, the party people and the media were disappointed that he did not succeed in bringing commander Ehud Barak into his orbit, and then they ridiculed the emergency meeting of the "security cabinet" to discuss the terror attack in Netanya. Are these just epiphenomena characteristic of primary eves and routine criticism of an overly forceful leader by ego-bound politicians? Here is a headline from January, 1999, on the eve of the primaries in the Labor Party, known at that time as "One Israel:" "Tension in Labor - Barak demands reserved slots for candidates he favors. Barak is interested in integrating movements like David Levy's Gesher and Yisrael b' Aliyah, headed by Natan Sharansky. His proposals are arousing disquiet and great tension in the party as they mean that its candidates, who will work hard in order to be elected on the national list, will be pushed back."

Barak did not wait for Amram Mitzna to warm the seat in his new party chairman's bureau in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. In November, 2002, immediately after the election of the new star from Haifa to the position of party chairman, Barak proposed to him that he retract the promise to meet with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. The suggestion was made by means of an interview on Army Radio. Mitzna dubbed the political culture he found in the Labor institutions "a culture of excrement." In an attempt to conciliate the party's cultural commissars, he pointedly handed out the key positions in the election headquarters to those who had not supported him, headed by Haim Ramon and Avraham Burg. His courtship of them came at the expense of those close to him, most notably Matan Vilnai, the first of the senior people to have rallied to Mitzna's side, who was pushed to the margins by him. Peretz, too, has hastened to draw the party machine people to his side - party secretary-general Eitan Cabel, former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Knesset faction chairman Ephraim Sneh. They of course, came gladly. Peretz is designating for Cabel the chairmanship of the election headquarters and for Fuad (Ben-Eliezer) the field headquarters. Tamir will head the "information" headquarters, Braverman - students and young people, Ephraim Sneh will be party representative at election headquarters and head of immigrant headquarters, Herzog - volunteers, Yachimovich - women and Avital - diaspora and Holocaust survivors.

Mitzna, who in the meantime has resigned from party politics and is serving as Mayor of Yeruham, is expecting an easier life in the party for the neighbor from Sderot. "In the Labor Party there are two circles," he explains. "There are the hacks and there are the voters. The voters vote for a party once every few years, and the hacks run it. The barrier to the party's breakthrough forward isn't its traditional voters, but rather the hackery that has moved away from ideology to my-deology. I was elected by 100,000 people and I succeeded in registering as party members thousands of kibbutznikim and Meretz voters. But my voters had no influence on the party central committee and bureau, because all the institutions had been appointed before I was elected chairman. Thus the everyday running of the party was left in the hands of a body of hacks that rejects any transplanted organ. Fuad, Eli Ben-Menachem and Weizman Shiri put together the convention in their own image and it was in their power to torpedo any move of mine.

"Fuad loses time after time and Dalia is damaging to any party," continues Mitzna, "but in the internal hackery they succeed in enlisting sufficient forces to move them to the top." The case of Peretz, he says, is entirely different. "Amir came with a large public of loyalists and by the force of his threat, he took control of the party machine and the hacks. However, the traditional Labor voters, like the people from the Kibbutzim, who supported me, have a problem digesting him. After Barak and Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu), they are looking for a candidate who is experienced and mature."

In Mitzna's view, the party's attitude toward a new leader depends on the number of Knesset seats he brings. He believes that five or six more seats would have changed his own situation and can change the attitude toward Peretz. He is not convinced that this will be the outcome of the coming elections. "Success depends to a crucial extent on the quality and variety of the list, but in order to run party affairs, you have to bring into your orbit those who control the various sectors. Many of them detract more than they add."

He recalls that in his day he asked Barak why he wasn't getting rid of those people. "He explained that it is impossible to work without the party machine and if he pushed them aside they would run to the media," relates Mitzna.

Ben-Eliezer, of course, offers an entirely different thesis: "The profile of the Labor voter is still the older Ashkenazi - the old Mapai. Even when the party is in opposition, they feel that they control the country and do not digest a foreign body," he says. "We have an emotional problem with this public. The party's tragedy is that it did not acknowledge the cataclysm that occurred in it in 1977 when [Menachem] Begin said 'I'm a chach-chach [disparaging term for a Jew of Middle Eastern origin], come to me.' Ask the Likudnik why he votes for the Likud and he will tell you that this is his home. Now the home is breaking up. The parents have divorced and the children are fleeing. They could come to us. It all depends on whether Peretz will make the leap from a workers' council secretary and party leader to a national leadership figure. If he does not understand that he has to surround himself with people who have experience with high policy and the system, he will crash just like Barak and Mitzna."

A source close to Peretz, who preferred to speak anonymously, agrees that the party will be tested by the extent to which it is prepared to accept a different sort of implant, but Peretz, too, is facing a test: "The party has elected Amir and not just the group of people he registered for membership in it. He received a great deal of support in areas that are not considered his natural environment. Now the burden of proof is on him - will he know how to assuage the anxieties that a new guy brings to the neighborhood? Will he be able to rise above the status of a hack with a megaphone to the status of a leader of a party that aspires to return to power and cannot confine itself to just a single banner, the societal banner, important as that might be? The party has to fly all the banners simultaneously - the peace banner, the security banner, the law and order banner, the education banner and the health banner. The wisdom of leadership is to build a team that will be perceived by the public as a reliable hive that can work together."

The invitation of news photographers to the meeting of Peretz's "security cabinet" annoyed the Labor Party civilians, who were left out. Ophir Pines-Paz, who until not long ago participated in "real" cabinet meetings, shared his protest with the media. Peretz says he doesn't understand what Pines-Paz was so upset about. All in all, he, Peretz, just wanted to show the public that, even without Ehud Barak, at the top level of the Labor Party there is as much top military brass as in the Likud and Kadima combined, and that he has "two Dichters" - Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, both of them former Shin Bet chiefs who have rallied to Peretz's side, just as former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter has rallied to Kadima. And perhaps, behind that PR move for beginners hides an all-powerful leader of the workers? organization who wants to show everyone that he already understands that anybody who wants to be prime minister and whose name isn't Ariel Sharon can't do it without a party.

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