New Labor Head Ben-eliezer Faces Challenges Within, Without

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer passed his first test as Labor Party leader on Sunday: He met privately with Shimon Peres, the foreign minister and Labor’s elder statesman, and didn’t quarrel with him.

“The question of who is Labor’s ‘representative minister’ in the Cabinet? It didn’t even come up,” Ben-Eliezer remarked disingenuously after the meeting. “I’d be the last man in the world to harm Shimon’s status and position.”

It’s not clear whether Peres will retain the title or whether — as Ben-Eliezer’s aides suggest privately — Labor might have two “representative ministers” in the Cabinet. Either way, Peres will keep his prestige and Ben-Eliezer, without stirring up ill will, will assert his role as the new boss of the dispirited Labor Party.

The next test, though, might be harder to pass. If the recent decline in Palestinian violence continues and the U.S. peace envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, returns to the region to pursue a cease-fire agreement, matters could quickly come to a head between the two main parties in Israel’s unity government.

Ben-Eliezer and Peres remain committed to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the pressure from those in Labor who want the party to leave because of Sharon’s handling of relations with the Palestinians might become too strong to resist.

In that case, Ben-Eliezer might find himself leading Labor into the opposition earlier than he wants, and preparing for new national elections.

Ben-Eliezer, 65, is a former brigadier-general in the Israel Defense Force who now serves as defense minister and the third member of the Inner Cabinet with Sharon and Peres. He assumed the Labor leadership last week amid an anemic show of support from his party’s top echelon of ministers and Knesset members.

Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, Ben-Eliezer’s deputy at the Defense Ministry, was the only Labor leader who bothered to turn out for Ben-Eliezer’s victory celebration Dec. 25.

A revote was held last week in some 50 polling stations after the initial September election was marred by allegations of fraud. When the Druse and Arab sectors decided to boycott the revote, Ben-Eliezer took the polling stations by a margin of 80 percent to 20 percent over Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

The margin may have been wide, but the turnout was tiny. The voters’s message seemed to be apathy or, worse, antipathy toward the two candidates.

Burg made matters worse by an ungracious speech at the party’s Central Committee on Dec. 27, when he offered Ben-Eliezer mealy-mouthed congratulations. He also urged Ben-Eliezer to “prepare the party” for another primary in one year’s time, meaning that Burg plans to run when Labor chooses its prime ministerial candidate for national elections scheduled for 2003.

“Talking about a one-year temporary period is not the way to heal and rebuild the party,” Sneh said of Burg’s comment. “It’s not constructive, but destructive.”

Ben-Eliezer, who was born in Iraq, speaks fluent Arabic and goes by the Arabic nickname “Fuad,” is Labor’s first Sephardic leader.

He entered politics two decades ago as a member of the now-defunct Sephardic party Tami, and is thus something of an outsider among Labor veterans.

Labor doves — men like Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami — deprecate him as a hard-liner. Others disparage the heavyset Ben-Eliezer as an intellectual lightweight.

When he first threw his hat into the ring, the conventional wisdom was that Ben-Eliezer was functioning as a stalking horse for ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In the unlikely event that Ben-Eliezer won, pundits said, he would “keep the seat warm” for Barak to make a comeback when the time was ripe.

But at last week’s Central Committee meeting, Barak offered generous praise and warm wishes to Ben-Eliezer. Just as he and Peres had been defense minister, party leader and then prime minister, Barak said, so, too, did he hope that “Fuad” would win the premiership for Labor.

For his part, Ben-Eliezer has moved discernibly leftward in recent weeks, aiming to position himself in the party’s mainstream. He has mused aloud about the possibility that Labor might have to leave the government if it becomes possible to resume peace talks but Sharon drags his heels.

He has publicly supported Peres’ ongoing negotiations with the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Karia, despite Sharon’s reservations. And he has said he would be among the most generous Israeli leaders in peace talks — provided he was convinced the Palestinians’ wish for reconciliation was genuine.

Ben-Eliezer has warned that Labor might not be able to support the prime minister’s economic policies indefinitely.

But it is on the peace front that he will face his toughest in-house challenge. Beilin has convinced enough Central Committee members to convene a special session on Jan. 17, and his supporters have plastered the country with posters predicting that Labor will leave the government then.

That prediction is probably premature. But the new Labor leader will face constant urgings, before and after that session, to formulate an alternative to Sharon’s mantra of “no negotiations under fire.”

To sharpen the differences and mount an effective challenge to Likud in the next election, pundits say Labor presumably will part company with Sharon sooner or later.

Ben-Eliezer’s task will be to choose the right moment, and the right issue on which to walk out.

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