Behind the Headlines Labor Party Faces Uphill Struggle

With the leadership of the Labor Party now settled by Premier Yitzhak Rabin’s narrow win over Shimon Peres last night, attention is focused on the party’s uphill struggle for victory at the polls May 17. For the first time in Israel’s history, the outcome of the general elections is in serious doubt. Labor, which has governed the nation since its founding, has received some severe jolts of late.

There have been scandals involving high party officials, a deteriorating economy, a festering social gap, new waves of labor unrest and an apparent deadlock in moves toward a Middle East peace settlement. The opposition has never been stronger. Likud, despite some internal differences, is priming for a fight and seems to “smell” victory in the electorate’s apparent desire for changes.

The new Democratic Movement for Change headed by Prof. Yigal Yadin has grown with amazing speed since it was formed last year and has benefited materially and psychologically from the defections of numerous prominent Laborites to its ranks.

The closeness of Rabin’s victory last night has provided new ammunition for the opposition. The tiny margin of 41 votes by which the Premier retained the leadership of his party is hardly a vote of confidence. In 1973, when Rabin and Peres battled for the Premiership left vacant by the retirement of Golda Meir, Rabin won by only 40 votes. But at that time, the leader was elected by the 600-member Central Committee. This time nearly 3000 convention delegates voted. Proportionately, Rabin’s victory last night, after more than two years in office, thus was even more precarious.

REPUDIATION OF RABIN CLAIMED

Opposition leaders already are claiming that the close vote amounts to a repudiation by the Labor Party of its own policies as executed by Rabin. They also seem to be convinced that Rabin will be an easier candidate to beat than Peres. The latter is an astute politician and formidable speaker.

Rabin has come over weakly in television debates and Knesset duels. He is a poor speaker, awkward in repartee, crude in political diatribe and insensitive to audience reaction. On the other hand, notwithstanding his colorless public image, even Rabin’s foes conceded that he is a tough, intelligent leader behind the scenes.

Whether he can lead his party to victory in the May elections will depend on a number of factors. It remains to be seen whether Rabin–possibly prompted by Golda Meir–will demand revenge against those Laborites who backed Peres. A bitter feud within its own ranks is something the party cannot afford. Attempts to wreak vengeance on the Peres faction would spell certain doom at the polls. Therefore, Rabin’s watchword from now on must be “in victory, magnanimity.”

There are many who say the Labor Party is worn out and has gone stale after nearly 30 years as Israel’s governing party. But the opposition must reckon with Labor’s remarkable resilience and its tremendous appetite for power. If the convention made anything clear, it was that Labor is by no means resigned to losing heavily at the polls and will fight tooth and nail to retain leadership of the government.

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