JERUSALEM, June 27 (JTA) If things had gone according to plan, the next few months would have seen a renascent Labor Party back on track, rallying behind a newly elected leader, ready to challenge a scandal-riven and politically divided Likud Party for power. Instead, a hotly contested leadership primary has mired the ailing party in corruption and brought to the surface tensions that threaten to tear it apart and may prevent Labor from mounting a serious challenge to Likud even if the controversial Gaza withdrawal and ensuing tensions force Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to call early elections. The low point came Sunday when, at an unruly Central Committee meeting, Labor voted to postpone leadership elections that were scheduled for Tuesday. By a majority of 60 percent to 40 percent, party activists decided to clean up the suspect voters’ register before setting a new election date. The trouble is that a thorough examination of around 120,000 putative party members will make it virtually impossible to hold a new leadership primary before November. That might not give a new leader time to prepare for general elections that most pundits expect in the first half of 2006. Labor’s woes don’t end there. The forgeries in the membership drive and the heated Central Committee meeting, in which activists almost came to blows, have seriously tarnished the party’s image. So has the fact that many observers see the election postponement as a devious last-minute attempt to stop Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut labor federation, from winning the party leadership. This points to a deeper problem: Can Labor contenders agree on the rules for electing the leader and, even if they do, will they accept the results and stay together in a united party? All published polls going into the final stretch of the leadership race showed temporary incumbent Shimon Peres in the lead, followed by Peretz. An Israel Radio poll last week, for example, gave Peres 30 percent, Peretz 20 percent, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak 16 percent, former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer 11 percent and the former army deputy chief of staff, Matan Vilnai, 8 percent. With no candidate winning the 40 percent needed for victory on the first ballot, that would have meant the top two, Peres and Peretz, going through to a second round runoff, which Peretz might have won. All the candidates except Peretz agreed to the postponement formula. Ironically, Barak, Ben-Eliezer and Vilnai all had insisted on elections as soon as possible, on the grounds that only a party with a recognized, full-fledged leader could mount a serious challenge for national power. The system is partly to blame. Before a leadership primary, Labor opens its doors to new members. Each candidate tries to persuade as many of his potential supporters as possible to join. That can lead to illegal mass, forged or fictitious recruitment, which seems to have happened in this and previous Labor membership drives. Following complaints from the three trailing candidates, and internal evidence that there had been widespread irregularities, Labor’s newly elected secretary-general, Eitan Cabel, called in a retired judge to inspect a sample of the recently submitted membership forms. After working through 10,000 forms in two days, Judge Sarah Frisch declared that “a high percentage of the forms checked were found to be invalid.” That left two alternatives: Postpone the primary, systematically check all the forms and come back with a whittled down but sound voters’ register; or go ahead with it more or less as scheduled, while strictly checking the voters on Election Day. Ultimately, the decision to put off the elections until a valid voters’ register is presented was inevitable. Only a voters’ register, which all the candidates agree is valid, will enable an election in which the losers accept the results. But this creates a serious timing problem. A thorough check will take several weeks, and is unlikely to be completed much before the planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, set to begin Aug. 15. No one will want to hold a leadership primary while the withdrawal and the highly charged evacuation of settlers are still going on. That, Labor pundits estimate, means a primary in November at the earliest, which could leave whoever is elected party leader facing a national election with just a few months to establish himself as a credible candidate for prime minister. The answer could be no leadership primary at all. Most of the contenders may feel that it would be better to allow Peres to continue in office until the election, which he almost certainly would lose by a large margin to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Then, in the immediate aftermath, they will demand a leadership race to succeed him. The big question is whether the cleanup process purges the party or destroys it. Five months down the road, Labor could be able to take the high moral ground and offer the electorate fresh peace and socioeconomic messages or it could be political dead meat, its energies sapped in more destructive infighting and collective hari-kiri.
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