(photo credit: Roni Schutzer)
"I was created by the Labor Party," said Ophir Paz-Pines at the start of his emotional speech at Sunday's Labor Central Committee meeting.
He wasn't kidding. Paz-Pines is the kind of politician who has no existence outside the parliamentary sphere, no previous career, a man who knew from his teenage years that one day he would be a Labor MK. He proceeded linearly from the party's youth wing to the Young Guard students' association, cultivating allies and journalists on his way and catching the attention of his elders, who arranged a job for him in the Jewish Agency, until he could make his living as a full time politician.
He almost succeeded in 1992 at the age of 30 to get elected to the Knesset on the spot reserved for the Jerusalem branch, and failed by only forty votes.
By the 1996 elections, he was already unstoppable. Ever since, he's been a fixture of parliamentary life, keeping a voluble presence in every available forum and performing services both for the party's leaders as well as the rank and file. As a result, Ehud Barak appointed him faction and coalition chairman in 1999 and he was elected party secretary-general in 2001. He finished first in the 2005 ministerial run-off at the central committee and second in the party-wide primaries for the Knesset list in this years election.
Pines has no general's laurels. He didn't lead a workers union; he doesn't even have a proud Labor pedigree like Prince Buzhi Herzog. Instead, he owes his meteoric success solely to his unswerving loyalty to the party line and his undying efforts on its behalf.
All of his considerable aggressiveness was directed towards his party's rivals, but rarely inwards. He was trusted by his seniors and liked by his contemporaries for his reluctance to be a member of any camp or take a significant part in the serial intrigues against the six chairmen who rotated over less than a decade.
It's hard to imagine how difficult it was for Paz-Pines to overcome three decades of loyalty, and decide that this was now his moment to strike. At his press-conference on Monday, he said he was choosing "the most difficult option" in deciding to mount a challenge against Labor Chairman Amir Peretz.
In his case, we can almost believe that, as fighting to depose a leader was always against his nature.
He might be sincere when he says that he is standing up for his party's long-held principles in refusing to remain a member of the government together with Avigdor Lieberman, but this wouldn't be the first time Labor capitulated and made deep ideological compromises. Pines wasn't at the forefront at those times, demanding the party remain true.
More likely, his decision to resign and announce his candidacy for the chairmanship is the result of a lengthy process in which he realized that his obvious popularity at all levels and Peretz's weakness afforded him a unique opportunity to try for the top job. For such a man of the party, there was also the real concern for Labor's future. Stuck for two elections on its lowest result ever - 19 MKs - Paz-Pines knows that it hasn't reached the bottom yet and under Peretz's leadership, the only way is down.
The polls are giving Pines right now very little chance to win the primaries, slated to take place next May. Certainly the large majority in the Central Committee that voted in favor of sitting with Lieberman indicates that for once, he is out of step with the party's mood.
These are still early days in a contest whose actual date and participants are far from clear. Right now, it seems that Pines is more interested in making sure Peretz loses and is replaced by a more popular and capable leader. It's highly likely that at a more advanced stage, polls will convince him to drop out of the race and join forces with a more viable candidate.
As he said on Monday, "the Labor party is the only home I have" and "I can't give up on the party."