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Is Labor bouncing back?

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, seated right, discusses the resignation of Labor ministers from the coalition government in October 2002. (Brian Hendler)

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, seated right, discusses the resignation of Labor ministers from the coalition government in October 2002. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) — Things seem to be looking up for Israel’s beleaguered Labor Party — though it’s too soon to tell if the hopeful signs are enough to overcome the stigma of the Oslo peace process and allow Labor to again challenge the Likud as a serious rival for national power. Still, Labor can take heart from several recent developments: It’s about to rejoin the government, an impending leadership race has excited party activists and the victory of young faces in a vote for the party’s Cabinet seats in a national unity government is seen as confirmation that Labor finally is emerging from a four-year slump. The elevation of the young legislators over some of Labor’s more seasoned politicians and leadership hopefuls also shows the strength of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In the two months since Barak announced his decision to return to politics and compete for the Labor leadership, he has regained sufficient control of the party’s Central Committee to have a decisive influence on the outcome of the vote for ministers. But whether those developments are enough to win back the public’s confidence — after the Labor-led Oslo peace process exploded into violence more than four years ago, the party suffered a precipitous drop at the polls — remains to be seen. Much will depend on how much influence Labor is able to wield in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new government, on who wins the party’s leadership race next June and on whether Labor’s young ministers can help create a more appealing party image. The young politicians catapulted to the front rank of national politics last week were legislators Ofir Pines-Paz, 42, and Yitzhak Herzog, 44, both of whom have wide national appeal, especially among younger voters. Pines-Paz decided to go into national politics in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995. Standing near Rabin when the prime minister was gunned down, Pines-Paz says he vowed to fight on for the ideals Rabin stood for. Pines-Paz was elected to the Knesset at age 34 in 1996. After Barak’s defeat in the 2001 election he became party secretary, but he resigned little more than a year later. Critics claim Pines-Paz couldn’t handle the job; he says that after restoring Labor’s finances, he wanted to focus on his work in the Knesset, where he has been honored as an outstanding legislator. Pines-Paz will become Interior Minister, where he could continue the “secular revolution” started by Shinui’s Avraham Poraz. That’s a great worry to Shinui, which vies with Labor for the same secular, middle-class electorate: Analysts estimate that Pines-Paz’s secular views, single-mindedness and youth could bring streams of young Shinui voters back to Labor in the next election. Herzog, son of the late President Chaim Herzog, first came to prominence as Cabinet secretary in Barak’s 1999-2001 government. Elected to the Knesset for the first time in 2003, Herzog’s rise in the party has been meteoric. In the Knesset, Herzog played a key role in the powerful Finance Committee and became the main mediator among rival contenders for Labor leadership on matters of procedure. As Housing Minister, Herzog will be able to enforce the freeze on Jewish settlement building in the Palestinian territories that Effi Eitam, his National Religious Party predecessor, often tried to circumvent. The other member of the emerging young Labor trio, Shalom Simchon, is more experienced than the other two, having served as agriculture minister under Barak. Indeed, he’s very close to the former prime minister and is considered his right-hand man in the Knesset and the party. A moshavnik from the Galilee, Simchon wields considerable power in the party through the strong farmers’ lobby he controls. The election of the young legislators, none of them military men, also was a blow to the party’s many ex-generals, some of whom harbored or still harbor leadership aspirations. Five ex-generals — Benjamin Ben- Eliezer, Matan Vilnai, Ephraim Sneh, Danny Yatom and Amram Mitzna — competed for the seven available ministerial posts. An eighth post is guaranteed to the party chairman and eminence grise, Shimon Peres. Despite the fact that there are two ex-party leaders among them — Ben Eliezer and Mitzna — and three current leadership contenders — Ben Eliezer, Vilnai and Sneh — only two of the ex-generals made it to the top seven spots. Ben-Eliezer finished a disappointing third and Vilnai an embarrassing sixth. The generals’ poor performance, however, highlighted the strength of another military man who wasn’t competing — Barak. Not all the people in Barak’s camp did well, but he made sure that Vilnai and Sneh, his main rivals for the party leadership, did badly. Sneh’s failure to win a ministerial spot may have knocked him out of the leadership race altogether. Vilnai’s low finish, entitling him only to a ministry without portfolio, dented his promising leadership campaign. Peres also saw his standing slip: Having allowed the Central Committee to choose the list of ministers rather than choosing them himself, Peres was left with few supporters among the ministers chosen. Moreover, Barak believes that Peres, as the senior Labor minister in the Sharon government, will take flak from the party faithful for the government’s inevitable failures. Polls show both Peres and Vilnai ahead of Barak in the race for party leader, but Barak is betting that his firm hold on the Central Committee, his alliances with key players like the new young stars and the possibility that once in government Labor will be outmaneuvered by Sharon will lead to a turnaround in the coming months. Another ex-general with leadership aspirations, former navy commander and Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, says he hopes one day to be prime minister. Still, having just joined Labor, Ayalon says he first wants to learn politics from the bottom up. In other words, Ayalon probably won’t challenge for the leadership for the next few years. For now, he could become a king-making ally to one of the top contenders. That means that despite the gains by the young generation, Labor is unlikely to have a younger, civilian party leader in the near future. Chances are that a general will be at the helm after the next leadership race, and that generals will be fighting it out again the time after that. Still, whoever becomes Labor’s next leader could have an impressive cluster of young, dynamic civilian players at his side — and, come Election Day, that could make all the difference with Israeli voters.

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