News Analysis: Israel’s Two Major Parties Surprised by Primary Results
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News Analysis: Israel’s Two Major Parties Surprised by Primary Results

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Israel’s two major political parties, Labor and Likud, have emerged from pre- election primaries with their leadership slates markedly more extreme than the images they were each seeking to project in the election campaign.

In Monday’s Labor Party primary, a longtime and outspoken dove, Minister of Tourism Uzi Baram, topped the field.

Baram, 59, emerged as the second most popular figure in Israel’s ruling Labor Party, defeating two self-proclaimed future prime ministerial hopefuls, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak and Interior Minister Haim Ramon.

Baram will be listed behind Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was already chosen as the party’s candidate for prime minister and was therefore assured the top slot.

The Likud primaries, which took place a day later, catapulted former Israel Defense Force general and political neophyte Yitzhak Mordechai to an equally unexpected victory.

The results of the primaries could complicate the two parties’ respective efforts to appeal in the weeks ahead to Israel’s swing voters, whose preferences will decide the May 29 general election.

This sector of the electorate is traditionally identified as centrist.

To attract their support, Labor has been stressing security concerns in its election campaign, while Likud has stressed its support of the peace process.

The main Labor Party slogan is “A Strong Israel with Peres.” Likud’s is “Peace with Security.”

These platforms hardly fit the trends reflected in the primary results, but the reason for this disparity is clear.

The primaries are not “open”; they are limited to registered and paid-up party members.

Characteristically, such people are more “ideological” than people who are politically less active and less identified with a specific party.

The primary results reflected this ideological slant of party members, who favored the more radical candidates on each side of the political spectrum.

As a result of the Likud primary, Mordechai will actually appear fourth on the list because of Likud’s recent merger with two smaller opposition parties, Gesher, led by David Levy, and Tsomet, led by Rafael Eitan.

Topping the combined list will be Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by Levy and Eitan, then Mordechai.

Following Mordechai on the list as a result of the primary will be arch- hardliner Ariel Sharon, the former defense minister and current Knesset member who successfully brokered the merger with Gesher and Tsomet.

The next two places on the Likud list went to Moshe Katsav and Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, neither of whom is considered a moderate.

Only then do the first two Likud moderates appear: Dan Meridor, a former justice minister, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

For their part, Labor officials on the whole were pleased with the party list that emerged from Monday’s primary.

Rounding out the top five Labor slots after Peres and Baram were Barak, Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Ramon.

Finishing in sixth place in the Labor primary was Finance Minister Avraham Shochat, followed by Nissim Zvilli – a spot protected for the party’s secretary general – and Health Minister Ephraim Sneh.

Ninth place, a spot promised to the woman who finished first in the primary, was taken by Dalia Itzik.

Deputy Defense Minister Ori Orr came in next, followed by Minister Avraham Shochat, followed by Nissim Zvilli – a spot protected for the party’s secretary general – and Health Minister Ephraim Sneh.

Baram made it clear that he no longer necessarily accepted the conventional wisdom that Barak, the former IDF chief of staff, and Romon, the former Histadrut chairman, would battle between themselves for the succession to the prime ministership when Peres, if reelected, steps down in 1999.

Baram’s dyed-in-the-wool dovishness attracted public attention in the late 1980s, when he refused to join a Likud-Labor government of national unity on the grounds that the Likud’s opposition to peace moves would paralyze the government.

A onetime secretary general of the party, he was among the first of Labor’s Knesset members to call openly for mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Voters in the primary “punished” some lackluster Cabinet figures, including Trade Minister Michael Harish, who was squeezed out of the list of so-called “safe seats,” positions that are expected to win seats in the next Knesset.

For Labor, that magic number is between 44 and 46, according to recent opinion polls.

The combined Likud-Gesher-Tsomet list has about 42 safe seats, according to polls. Fourteen of those seats have been allocated to the two smaller parties, leaving only 28 for loyal Likudites.

Labor voters also dealt a blow to Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Shetreet, who has embarrassed the prime minister by some high-profile moves against the Orthodox establishment.

He dropped to No. 42 and might find himself even lower if the party leadership decides to advance a representative of the immigrant population to a safe slot.

The Labor primary produced 14 “new faces” among the first 44 names on the list, and the party’s campaign is now expected to accentuate the new blood injected into the party’s veins.

Among the salient new names: * Shlomo Ben-Ami, Moroccan-born professor of history at Tel Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to Madrid.

Ben-Ami is seen as the ultimate Israeli success story: a poor immigrant child from North Africa who went on to win the highest academic accolades, recently combining research with diplomacy.

Peres will almost certainly offer him a Cabinet seat if the prime minister wins the May election. * Tsalli Reshef, Jerusalem attorney, wealthy businessman and longtime leader of Peace Now. An accomplished public speaker, he is expected to rise quickly through the Labor ranks. * Ron Huldai, highly regarded head of the leading “Herzliya” high school in Tel Aviv. He dramatically resigned to embark on a political career, declaring that he believes that he can make a genuinely original contribution to public life. * Addis Masala, a leading activist in the Ethiopian immigrant community who came to Israel in 1980. He was preferred over several Russian candidates to fill a safe slot allotte to an immigrant candidate.

The Likud primaries also produced a number of new faces, including: * Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service. * David Re’em, a deputy mayor of Haifa. * Yisrael Katz, a moshav leader and former aide to Ariel Sharon. * Zvi Zilker, mayor of Ashdod.

Levy’s six handpicked parliamentary colleagues for Gesher’s safe seats include his brother, Lod Mayor Maxim Levy; his two longtime aides, Motti Mishani and Yaacov Bardogo; and the just-retired ambassador to France, Yehuda Lankeri.

The secular Meretz bloc, which is in a coalition with the Labor government, held its primary Sunday. The bloc’s 10 Knesset incumbents who ran in the primary won the top 10 slots on the Meretz list.

Communications Minister shulamit Aloni, who helped found Meretz in 1992, decided in January not to run in the current elections after the party leadership was assumed by Environment Minister Yossi Sarid.

But she, along with Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, who also did not run, is expected to remain active in the movement.

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