Whoever wins over the Arab sector will win the Labor Party leadership race, senior Labor officials said Wednesday.
As MK Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak begin campaigning for the upcoming Labor runoff race neck-in-neck in the kibbutz sector, both will have to rely on the Arab vote to win the race.
The Arab sector and the kibbutz sector constitute nearly two-thirds of Labor Party membership.
In Monday's Labor Party primaries, current chairman and Defense Minister Amir Peretz won nearly 35 percent of the Arab vote. Barak was close behind with 33%, while Ayalon trailed with 12%.
Since Ayalon and Barak were nearly tied among the kibbutz sector, with 44.6% and 40.9% of the kibbutz vote respectively, either candidate would need to garner the Arab vote to assure themselves a victory.
"The Arab sector is currently considering their options. We are taking time to look at the two candidates and determine who represents our best interest," said Minister Ghaleb Majadle.
As the first Arab minister, Majadle is seen as having significant influence over Labor's Arab constituency. During the primaries he campaigned ceaselessly for Peretz, and was often told by local Arab leaders that they would instruct their communities to vote "for the man Majadle represents, only because Majadle represents him."
On Wednesday, Majadle continued to hold meetings with local Arab leaders and urged them to be patient and meet with representatives of both the Barak and Ayalon camp before deciding which way to vote.
"We have a number of things we are looking for. We want to elect the candidate that will keep us in the government so that we continue to legislate and make change. We want to elect the candidate that truly flies the socioeconomic flag. We want to see someone who advances the peace process and the Arab peace initiatives," said Majadle.
Even though on Wednesday it seemed as though Peretz was preparing to throw his backing behind Ayalon, Majadle said he would wait and see if that political partnership became official.
"I am, and always have been, in Peretz's camp. If he tells me that we are conclusively backing Ayalon then I will honor that decision," said Majadle.
The Arab sector has reason to dislike both Ayalon and Barak purely on the basis of their backgrounds. The Arab sector is credited with giving Barak his first term as prime minister in 1999.
Right before the next election, however, Barak's popularity among Israeli Arabs slid due to his handing of the October 2000 riots in which 13 Arab citizens were killed in clashes with police. Many have forgiven Barak for that incident, said Majadle, and have gone back to seeing him as "Rabin's successor."
Ayalon, meanwhile, is most widely known as the former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency.)
"The Shin Bet is the stuff of nightmares for most Israeli Arabs since there is a feeling that they are constantly being watched by the organization," said one Labor Party Arab official.
He added that neither Barak nor Ayalon would win the Arab sector's vote on the basis of their history or ideology, but on the basis of how local Arab leaders decided their communities should vote.