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Labor sets date to elect chairman

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JERUSALEM, March 27 (JTA) – Israel’s leaderless Labor Party is preparing for a grueling battle for party chairman, a struggle that may affect its ability to function in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unity government.

Labor’s 1,700-member Central Committee decided this week that an election for party leader will take place Sept. 4, meaning that candidates will be fighting for the position even as the party seeks to find its feet in Sharon’s ideologically diverse coalition.

The party was left without a permanent chairman when Ehud Barak stepped down after losing the Feb. 6 prime ministerial election to Sharon.

At least one declared candidate for Labor leader, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and several potential candidates were hoping for a later date and a much longer campaign, enabling them to drum up grass-roots support and nurture their leadership credentials.

Recently appointed defense minister under Sharon, Ben-Eliezer apparently believes that the longer he serves in this high-profile position, the better his chances of being chosen as Labor leader.

The Central Committee, however, agreed Sunday on a short-term contest. Lists of eligible party voters must be drawn up by the end of April, and the vote will be held just four months later.

Of all the candidates, Ben-Eliezer finds himself in the most delicate position – having to distinguish himself as a potential prime ministerial opponent to Sharon even as he serves as Sharon’s right-hand man in the Cabinet.

Another potential candidate, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, faces a similar dilemma. Peres, however, has a sufficient record after five decades in Israeli politics that he is less pressed to define his views while serving under Sharon than is Ben-Eliezer.

In contrast, the other potential candidates opposed joining Sharon’s government, and refused to serve in it. That raises the awkward possibility that they will seek to advance their candidacies by criticizing government policies, even as other Laborites in Sharon’s Cabinet help to implement them.

Several Labor leaders, indeed, had argued against joining the unity government – at least until the leadership battle was settled – on the grounds that it would prevent the party from redefining itself and presenting itself as a credible alternative to Sharon’s Likud.

Ben-Eliezer’s supporters acknowledge that a short campaign is not in his interest, but add privately that the election date may yet prove flexible.

If a political crisis arises over the summer that prompts Labor to consider leaving the government, the Central Committee might extend the leadership race, they suggest.

Similarly, a serious security crisis that claims all of Ben-Eliezer’s time and energy could give his supporters reason to demand an extension from the Central Committee.

Political pundits interpreted the decision for a September election as a major success for the front-runner, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

Burg wants an early vote to head off other candidates. Insiders say that not a week has gone by in the last two years that Burg has not spent at least one day politicking with rank-and-file Laborites “in the field.”

His chores as speaker of the Parliament – a prominent job that is not particularly arduous – have enabled Burg to keep up the effort to woo grass- roots support.

By contrast, Ben-Eliezer has long had the common touch within Labor, but serving in the Cabinet “hot seat” during the conflict with the Palestinians will leave him little time to spare for party politics in coming months.

He may get plenty of TV air time, but few chances to get out and press the flesh.

Other potential candidates include:

• Shlomo Ben-Ami, the foreign minister under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a leading negotiator in the failed peace talks with the Palestinians.

Ben-Ami faces rough sailing in the near future as a state commission probe Israeli Arab rioting last October that left 13 dead.

As public security minister at the time, Ben-Ami was in charge of the police during the riots. Unless he gets a clean bill of health from the commission – which could take months – Ben-Ami would be a dead weight for Labor in the Israeli Arab community.

• Haim Ramon, the former interior minister and a longtime personal friend of Burg, who shares Burg’s dovish views.

Ramon is contemplating a run for Labor leadership, privately spreading the word that Burg doesn’t have what it takes to make tough decisions.

He says Burg’s job as Knesset speaker and his previous role, as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, have not necessarily prepared him for the prime ministership.

In contrast, Ramon has served in several important Cabinet slots but is not widely popular in Labor because of the “revolution” he set off in the Histadrut trade union confederation in the early 1990s.

Elected as Histadrut chairman, Ramon proceeded to cut down the swollen bureaucracy of the once omnipotent fortress of socialism. He severed the link between the Histadrut and the Kupat Holim health fund, wresting from the unions a vast source of members and power.

• Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate now serving as foreign minister. The 78-year-old Peres has neither said he will run nor ruled out the option.

Some in Labor suspect the indefatigable Peres – who stepped down as party chairman after losing the 1996 election for prime minister – may take another crack at the leadership. Burg regards himself as Peres’ acolyte, but will not want to stand aside even if Peres challenges him.

• Yossi Beilin, the former justice minister under Barak and another close friend and political ally of Burg. Identified with Labor’s ultra-dovish wing, Beilin has said he will not run, but this could change.

Beilin is seeking the Central Committee’s endorsement to become acting Labor chairman until the Sept. 4 election. Neither Peres nor Labor Party Secretary Ra’anan Cohen, also a minister in Sharon’s government, are happy with this idea.

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