JERUSALEM (JTA) — With Israel’s general election less than three months away, the once all-powerful Labor Party seems to be in disarray.
A new left-wing alliance forming around the dovish Meretz Party seems likely to encroach on its political space. Ex-Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, who narrowly lost the June 2007 Labor leadership primary to Ehud Barak, has broken away to form yet another rival alliance. And recent polls show Labor will win only 10 or 11 seats in the next Knesset, down from its current 19 and way off the high of 44 it held 16 years ago.
All this means that for now the only realistic candidates for prime minister are Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Tzipi Livni of Kadima.
Many in Labor blame Barak’s leadership for what they see as a looming debacle in elections next February. They point to Barak’s poor personal relations with top Labor politicians and his failure to draw a clear distinction between Labor and Kadima on the key issues of peace, the economy and the rule of law.
The rumblings of discontent in the party grew louder when Barak recently granted his close supporters Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simchon guaranteed spots on Labor’s Knesset list. The move sparked widespread resentment among other top Labor leaders who will have to win their places in arduous and costly nationwide primaries.
For Ayalon it was the last straw. Ophir Pines-Paz, often cited as a future party leader, also considered leaving but relented. Both Ayalon and Pines-Paz sought but failed to get a promise from Barak not to join a coalition led by Netanyahu.
The new left-center alliance anchored by Meretz will present its Knesset list and candidate for prime minister by mid-December. It hopes the influx of ex-Labor heavyweights will help propel Meretz into a double-digit showing in the next Knesset and prevent Netanyahu from forming the next government.
The idea behind the new alliance is to tap into the reservoir of voters who identify with center-left positions but have been alienated from Labor under Barak.
At a Nov. 14 news conference announcing the group’s establishment, novelist Amos Oz declared that Labor had "played out its historical role" and that the new alliance would take over as the main party of peace and social democracy.
Among the founders are former Laborite and Knesset speaker Avraham Burg and ex- Barak aide Tzali Reshef.
The reasons for Labor’s decline go beyond Barak’s "highly problematic" leadership, Reshef says. He argues that the party lost its credibility by playing both sides of most key issues.
"You can’t be a party that says it wants peace with the Palestinians and be the big Jewish settlement builder," Reshef told JTA, saying Barak expresses solemn commitments to peace one day while authorizing new settlement construction in the West Bank the next. "This double-talk doesn’t work anymore. People want politicians without masks who tell them the truth, even when it is difficult to swallow."
Critics of the new left-wing alliance say it will succeed only in drawing votes away from Labor, reallocating seats within the Knesset’s center-left bloc rather than enlarging the bloc and stopping the Likud from coming to power.
Reshef, however, believes the new alliance and Labor will pick up seats from small, one-issue parties and Kadima. In Reshef’s view Kadima’s hawks, among them Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, will draw votes away from Likud, critically altering the balance of power in favor of the center-left.
"What is important is that the electorate as a whole moves leftward and that we have enough seats to prevent the right from forming a government,” Reshef says. “At the end of the day, that’s what the election is all about.”
To what extent Ayalon’s departure will hurt Labor is unclear. Ayalon had hoped to lead the new left-wing Meretz alliance but failed to reach an agreement with Meretz leader Haim Oron. In the end, Ayalon broke away and formed a new alliance with Rabbi Michael Melchior of the left-leaning Orthodox Meimad party.
Announcing his move, Ayalon declared that while Barak was "not Labor’s problem," he was "not the solution" either. Ayalon said he couldn’t even persuade his own family members to vote Labor.
The fact that Ayalon failed to close a deal with the new Meretz-led alliance does not augur well for its showing in next February’s election. It suggests there could be damaging clashes over who will lead and represent the alliance in the Knesset. Labor leaders dismiss the new alliance as a passing fad.
Meanwhile, as Labor struggles, Likud is picking up steam.
At a central committee meeting Sunday, Netanyahu showed off a gallery of old and new stars that recently have joined or rejoined the party, including Benny Begin, the son of the first Likud prime minister; former Cabinet minister Dan Meridor; ex-police chief Asaf Hefetz, who defected from Labor; and former national security adviser Uzi Dayan.
In Likud, those who clashed bitterly with Netanyahu when he was prime minister in the late 1990s, like Begin and Meridor, have made their peace with him.
In Labor, Barak’s close associates from his time as prime minister are running against him. While the general sense in the party is of people deserting a sinking ship, Likud has a sense of new and old Knesset hopefuls jumping on the winning bandwagon.
Barak has less than 90 days to turn things round, and Netanyahu less than 90 days to avoid making mistakes. But the first big election posters going up around Israel feature neither candidate.
They show the confident-looking Kadima candidate for prime minister with the slogan "Tzipi Livni is what is good for the country." The question for Livni, the current foreign minister, is whether all this realignment on the left will help or hinder her. That will become clearer in the coming weeks.