The usually dull Histadrut trade union elections are shaping up as the scene for the first act in Israel’s long-awaited political realignment.
In a major political tremor, one of the Labor Party’s brightest stars, former Health Minister Haim Ramon, has quit the party to launch an independent campaign to capture the Histadrut.
Ramon has eventual hopes to be prime minister, according to a broad consensus of politicians and political observers.
But Ramon’s breakaway likely has implications reaching far beyond his personal political ambitions.
Some political observers say that a success – even a relative success – by Ramon’s list in the Histadrut elections could prove to be the first step in the creation of a new, center-left party in Israel.
Such a development would not be a surprise in Israeli political circles.
Labor’s present senior leaders, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have been at their party’s helm for two decades and have not groomed impressive successors among the next generation.
Recent changes in Israel’s electoral system increases the role personal charisma, rather than traditional party loyalties, will play in the next national elections.
For the first time, contenders for the prime minister’s post will have to be elected directly by the populace rather than be placed by insiders at the top of their party’s list.
It has been widely predicted that the advent of peace, and the gradual application of electoral reforms, will bring about realignments on both sides of the political divide in Israel.
“Everyone understands that the day after peace breaks out – all present party structures collapse,” said Labor Knesset member and Ramon confidante Avraham Burg on Monday night.
Burg did not deny that he and others in Labor and Meretz, Labor’s left-wing coalition partner, have been toying with the long-term prospect of forming a new Social Democratic Party, to be called Massad for its Hebrew acronym, to run in the 1996 elections.
Ramon has been joined in his split from Labor by two other rising Labor stars and Knesset members, Amir Peretz and Shmuel Avital.
Under the Knesset regulations, three Knesset members are sufficient to form an independent party midway through the term, and that is what the three are expected to do.
On Sunday, Ramon’s move gathered important momentum when Mapam, Labor’s longtime leftist coalition partner, voted by a large majority to join with him in his bid to head the Histadrut. Ramon’s success was enhanced later the same night when Shas, the fervently Orthodox Sephardic party, announced that it, too, was joining forces with Ramon.
Ramon’s list will include himself and his followers, and members of Meretz and Shas.
And in a further indication that political change is in the air, the Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, Ronnie Milo, came out strongly and publicly this week in favor of Ramon.
All these endorsements lead political observers to predict that Ramon will take first place in the elections for the Histadrut, which take place May 11.
Ramon will be running against the incumbent secretary-general, longtime trade union bureaucrat Haim Haberfeld, and against the Likud challenger Yaakov Shamai.
Observers predict a sizable movement of support away from the Likud candidate and into the Ramon-Meretz-Shas camp. Histadrut voters who would not normally vote for a Labor candidate are expected to give support to the anti-Labor, anti-establishment Ramon list.
That list is named “Haim Hadashim,” meaning “new life,” but also playing on the first name of both Ramon and his incumbent opponent.
In the last Histadrut election, the Likud list garnered close to 30 percent of the vote.
More than 1.5 million Israelis are eligible to vote in the Histadrut elections, but turnout in the past has generally been low.
Observers do not necessarily predict an outright majority for Ramon; rather the likelihood that he and Haberfeld will each win less than 50 percent – and will be forced into a coalition together.
The main plank in Ramon’s platform is the introduction of national health insurance legislation that would entail the separation of the Histadrut from its Kupat Holim Clalit health fund.
Ramon and his allies failed to win a majority for this program within the Labor Party.
They claim the rank-and-file supports them, but the party and Histadrut machine, which is strongly represented in Labor’s national conference, ensured that the move was defeated.
Ramon’s failure to push his health care reform package through the Labor Party led to his resignation in February as health minister.
Labor and Histadrut old-timers accuse Ramon and his supporters of seeking to destroy the Histadrut.
But he counters that the Histadrut is ossified and needs a thorough shaking-up.
Specifically, Ramon argues that to link a person’s health insurance to his or her union membership is anti-democratic.
Under the present system, a person joining Kupat Holim Clalit, which is the largest health fund and in many small towns and villages the only such fund, automatically becomes a member of the Histadrut.
A proportion of that person’s health insurance premium, moreover, is channeled to Histadrut activities.
This argument over the proper role of the Histadrut, and its connection to Kupat Holim, was conducted at Mapam’s Sunday night central committee meeting in Tel Aviv.
Rabin made the case there for the old-style, Labor-led Histadrut, and Minister of Environment Yossi Sarid of the Ratz faction of Meretz urged the Mapam delegates to side with Ramon against the Labor “establishment.”
Mapam, a longtime former component of Labor, joined with Ratz and the Shinui party in the last Knesset elections to form Meretz.
Rabin contended Sunday night that Ramon’s “desertion” from Labor would weaken the government’s peace policy.
Sarid countered that Mapam’s refusal to join with the rest of Meretz in backing Ramon would weaken Meretz, which had consistently been the mainstay of that very peace policy.
By an unexpectedly large majority of 61 percent against 39, the Mapam committee voted to go with Ramon and the rest of Meretz.
Ramon himself said later that Rabin had been “pressured” by Haberfeld and other old-timers to appear before the Mapam delegates.