Behind the Headlines the Labor Party is in Trouble

The Labor Party, which ruled the roost for almost 30 years, is beset by internal difficulties which now threaten to split it. There are ideological and organizational differences between the followers of party chairman Shimon Peres and former Premier Yitzhak Rabin; between branches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the kibbutzim; between the younger generation and the older establishment leaders; and between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

As if this weren’t enough, the party’s articulate and most dovish member of the Knesset, Yossi Sarid, has charged that the organization has degenerated into a kind of “Likud B.” In a radio interview last weekend, he said the party had spent the first four years in opposition achieving a degree of unity but had failed to work out a new political policy which would attract the electorate and make it vote Labor back into power.

Since the elections this year and Labor’s renewed defeat, the party has been rent by personal and regional squabbles instead of embarking on a frank and fruitful discussion of a party platform, Sarid said. “Peres and Rabin are like Siamese twins, joined by internal organs which cannot be separated,” he said. “They should either work together to evolve a bold new policy or step down together to make way for another leader.”

LACK OF INITIATIVE CITED

As an example of the lack of initiative, Sarid cited Peres’ response to the plan recently proposed by Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia. “Instead of welcoming the new approach — of Saudi readiness at last to recognize Israel, even though on terms and within a framework unacceptable to Israel — Peres rejected it out of hand, just as (Premier Menachem) Begin did, Rabin at first showed some interest, but then backed down …. This is what I mean by Labor now being a sort of Likud B, ” Sarid said.

“I certainly could not join Likud A, but I do not feel I am comforable in Likud B,” he added. However, he said he would not leave the party but work from within and try to move it somewhat left-ward. “What is needed is for someone to come for-ward with a clear, bold policy, present it to the party executive and say: Here it is. If you are interested, I am ready to try to implement it,” Sarid stated. He declined to suggest any names as to who might devise and implement such a plan.

THE ASHKENAZI-SEPHARDI DISPUTE

But the dispute that is possibly more damaging to the party than any other is that between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic groups. This dispute cuts across all other groups and factions within the party.

The dispute erupted last week during a meeting of the party’s Knesset faction, called to appoint members to the various Knesset committees. The session, a stormy and emotional one, was described by Abba Eban as “one of the most depressing meetings I ever attended in my life.” The session reached such a fever pitch that Peres threatened to walk out and faction leader Moshe Shahal submitted his resignation, which was not accepted.

Labor Knesset members, formerly of north Africa, complained that they were not being given due representation in important Knesset committees.

The most aggressive stand was taken by Ra’anan Naim, who wanted a seat on the Finance Committee. He said: “I don’t want to eat your gefilte fish. It makes me puke. We shall have to become a separate faction within the Alignment. You have proved that Labor is not only dovish and anti-religious, but an Ashkenazi party as well.”

Rafi Edri, formerly of Morocco, complained that “some people in the faction are beyond the pale, without representation on important committees … During the elections we shut up. But we have capable people for every job.” A showdown was postponed by Peres who managed to push through a vote deferring elections to the Knesset faction executive and calling for a reconsideration of committee appointments when the Knesset winter term opens in November.

THE BATTLES OF THE DIADOCHI

A fight is also looming for the post of party secretary general, now held by Haim Barlev. It was at one time thought the post would be open if Barlev got a Cabinet post in a Labor-led government. The post is now being sought by Uzi Baram, secretary general of the party’s Jerusalem branch, and Eliahu Speiser, secretary general of its Tel Aviv branch. Both are trading charges and insults for the party’s loss of the elections.

The situation is further complicated by the party’s young guard group leader, Haim Ramon, and Sarid. Both contend that to regain office, the party should consider replacing the establishment leaders. Referring to the squabbles between Peres and Rabin, and to the fracas over the post of secretary general, Sarid said in another interview: “The party appears to be fuelled by an irrepressible force of self-destruction. We have quite enough of the battles of the Diadochi.” This was a reference to the Macedonian generals who squabbled and fought for the empire of Alexander the Great after his death in 323 BCE.

“They regard the Labor movement as if it is their due inheritance and which they treat as their own private property,” Sarid continued. “These Diadochi must be told now, in no uncertain terms, that if they cannot devote themselves together and immediately to the party’s ideological rehabilitation, they must relieve the party of the yoke with which they have burdened it.”

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