peretz gestures 298 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MK Ami Ayalon, the most outspoken challenger to Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz's leadership and the first speaker at Labor's central committee meeting on Sunday, set the tone for what followed. He didn't refer to Peretz once throughout his speech, even though he supported the motion brought by the chairman.
Labor might have voted - by a large majority in an open ballot - in favor of staying in the coalition together with newcomer Avigdor Lieberman, allowing Peretz to remain defense minister, but this was certainly no victory for the beleaguered chairman.
Ayalon claimed that his support of the motion was due only to national responsibility. As a backbench MK, he said, "I have nothing to gain by staying in the government."
"Sure," said one central committee member, "he wants to replace Peretz as defense minister."
A moment later, Ayalon seemed to give credence to this remark when he said Labor must remain in the government "to make sure that strategic decisions are taken together with the defense minister." He didn't specify who that might be.
Ayalon's parting shot was: "Confrontations are OK, but let's leave them for May 2007," the tentative date for the Labor leadership primaries.
Next on the podium was MK Danny Yatom, who argued against the motion. However, on one thing he could easily agree with Ayalon. "Peretz isn't going down now, but soon he will be," he said before going up to speak.
For most of the three-hour meeting, Peretz was the invisible man. He entered the stage from behind, unannounced and almost unnoticed, and sat quietly next to his intended deputy, Ephraim Sneh.
Those who referred to Peretz, even if they were in favor of his motion, criticized him. The only speaker who took the trouble to shake his hand after speaking was National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. He supported the motion but also gave Peretz a long lecture in leadership.
"I was also chairman and defense minister, but in my time the party's 26 MKs voted as one," he said. Fuad, the long-standing darling of the central committee, was the only one who received something approaching a standing ovation.
Peretz's irrelevancy was also evident in the groupings within the MKs' enclosure. Not long ago the divisions in the party were on pro- or anti-Peretz lines, but all of those barriers are now down.
Yatom - who shouted at Peretz last year that "only ping-pong balls ever whistled past you" - could be seen embracing Shelly Yacimovich, Peretz's erstwhile protege.
Another interesting couple was Ophir Paz-Pines, the only minister who opposed the motion, and sitting next to him, Labor veteran Lova Eliav, who was Peretz's sole patron from the old guard in the last primaries. Now it seems he's found a new champion.
Paz-Pines was poised to make the speech of his life, a desperate plea for the party's soul. However, a lackluster and shrill performance failed to move the audience and now he's stuck. In mounting his own challenge to Peretz, timing will be everything. Paz-Pines's principled stand against sitting in the same cabinet with Lieberman should leave him with no choice but to resign, but if he does so now, his campaign could well lose momentum by the time the new primaries are held.
As for Peretz, his speech was a disaster. He began with apologies for his tone. "This would have been a much fierier speech if I could have spoken against Lieberman," he said.
Regarding the party's achievements in government, he said, "It's only been six months and the accumulation of events has been so unbelievable."
Then he suddenly went into a defense report as if he was addressing the General Staff - anything but talk about the motion that he obviously hated himself for supporting.
At one stage he even began getting New-Agey when he said, "If we were only to say good things about each other, things would be a lot better."
The audience reacted accordingly. There was applause of course, but nothing approaching the kind of rapture a party leader should expect. Gradually, droves of members just drifted out to the lobby for some serious chatting.
You have to feel sorry for Peretz. After less than a year as chairman, he's chained to a job he never wanted, sitting in a coalition he never imagined in his worst nightmares, and leading a party whose members don't really hate him - they just don't seem to care about him any more. At least it should be over in a few months.