Two things were certain after this week’s leadership election in Israel’s Labor Party, and both centered on the incumbent, Amir Peretz.
First, Peretz was crushed in the voting and therefore will not last long as Israel’s defense minister. Second, he now has the opportunity of a parting shot: He effectively decides which of his two top rivals takes over Labor.
Monday’s vote ended in a near draw between former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and retired admiral Ami Ayalon, neither of whom passed the threshold of votes — 40 percent — required for an outright win. They will now face each other in a June 13 runoff.
Less certain is the future of the governing coalition of Ehud Olmert after a new Labor leader is chosen. Both Ayalon, 61, the former Shin Bet security services chief, and Barak, 65, have said they will remove Labor from the coalition unless Olmert steps down or sets a date for early elections.
Between now and the runoff, Peretz certainly will be courted by two old warriors who have long made little secret of their low regard for the former trade boss from Israel’s ethnic and economic periphery.
“Barak and Ayalon are trying to woo Amir Peretz,” one Ma’ariv headline read after Labor members cast their ballots.
Barak came out ahead in the first round, with 35.6 percent of votes to Ayalon’s 30.6 percent. But he will have greater difficulty in drawing Peretz and his supporters — who accounted for 22.4 percent of votes — to his side. Many in the Peretz camp remember Barak not for his achievements as military chief or former Labor leader, but that after losing the 2001 prime-ministerial election to Ariel Sharon, he bolted politics to pursue a lucrative consulting career abroad.
“Barak will have to do some serious sweating to win over the Peretz voters,” Labor’s secretary-general, Eitan Cabel, a Barak loyalist, told Israel Radio.
On a personal level, Ayalon may have an easier time with Peretz. Having eschewed Barak’s high-flier campaign style and instead traversing Israel for weeks to argue his case face to face with Labor supporters, Ayalon is said to have won the respect of Peretz.
Having joined the Knesset only last year, Ayalon has tried to turn his inexperience to his advantage by crusading against the perceived corruption and economic complacency of Israel’s elites.
Ayalon, who commanded the Navy from 1992 to 1996, headed and rebuilt the Shin Bet after its failure to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He has a master’s degree in business from Harvard and a reputation for integrity and straight talk.
In 2003, Ayalon launched the “Peoples’ Voice” with Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh, persuading hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians to sign onto a six-point peace deal.
Barak’s great advantage is his experience as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and interior minister. His weakness is his failure as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, when peace talks with both Syria and the Palestinians proved fruitless, the intifada began and Barak was forced to go for an early election that he lost in a landslide to Sharon.
Ma’ariv quoted an unnamed Peretz aide as saying that “there is no situation, no instance and no way that Amir will go with Barak. He’ll join up with Ayalon and lead him to victory. What has become evident today is that Peretz stands at the head of the social camp in Israel, which will follow him through thick and thin.”
But weighed against the expected rapport between Peretz and Ayalon is the fact that many in Labor are looking beyond this race to a future national showdown between their center-left party and the rightist Likud Party under Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s popularity has soared since the ascendancy of Hamas among the Palestinians and last year’s Lebanon war, which illustrated the lack of military credentials by both Peretz and Olmert. With Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party already in disarray, many in Labor are wary of providing any extra boost to the Likud by bringing in a greenhorn like Ayalon.
“Only I can beat Netanyahu,” was Barak’s mantra during his Labor campaign. He did in the 1999 prime-ministerial race, and the question is whether Labor voters will overlook what has happened since to restore him to the party leadership.