The divisions within the already splintered Labor Party became even more glaring Tuesday, with the party finding itself unable to unite over several key budgetary issues.
During a morning vote in the Knesset Finance Committee, MKs Orit Noked and Avishay Braverman voted against the coalition line, prompting harsh criticism from fellow Labor lawmakers.
Braverman has emerged as one of the most vocal dissenters in Labor, especially after he and MK Ami Ayalon formed a partnership agreeing that they would not run against one another in a future party leadership race.
"They are clearly already positioning themselves for the next election and setting themselves apart as the 'righteous rebels,'" said one veteran Labor MK.
Although Ayalon and Braverman denied they would pose an immediate challenge to Labor Chairman Amir Peretz, Braverman's vote against the coalition marked a clear step toward establishing themselves as a separate faction.
"This behavior is despicable and cheapens Israeli politics and pulls the carpet from under the party system," said Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor). "The [Labor] chairman needs to make order in the party and he needs to do it fast."
That order would require calling into line more than half of the Labor legislators, according to a Peretz aide.
Several of those MKs, including Shelly Yacimovich, Braverman and Ayalon, could once be counted among the chairman's most staunch supporters. On Wednesday, rumors continued to grow that Ayalon might be on the verge of challenging Peretz to a leadership race.
"Now is not the time for these political maneuvers. We are still at war and will continue to be at war until all our troops are withdrawn," said Ayalon. "But there is a lot of accounting to do, both in the party and to the Israeli public, and at the moment there is no clear agenda."
"Try to find a single issue we all agree on. I don't think it can be done," said one high-ranking Labor member. "There is no real leadership driving the boat, so the boat is sinking."
Many Labor members pointed to the "rebel quintet" - MKs Colette Avital, Danny Yatom, Matan Vilna'i, Ayalon and Braverman - as a separate faction that might break away from the party.
"There is still a lot of plotting there. They are setting themselves up as the anti-Peretz team so that if he gets blamed for mistakes in the war, they can come out as the better alternative to Israel's defense woes," a Peretz adviser said. Both Vilna'i and Yatom served as high-ranking members of the IDF, and Ayalon is the former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
"They feel the entire Labor Party needs to be shaken up if it wants to survive," said a Labor member close to the group. Any instability, the member said, would increase the chances of Peretz being replaced.
"The jury is still out on Peretz," said one Labor MK. "Most of the MKs aren't sure yet where they stand with him. It all depends on how the Israeli public judges him." Others, however, felt that by tying himself to Olmert, Peretz had isolated himself from his own party.
"For a former head of the Histadrut [Labor Federation] he sure seems to have forgotten how to be part of a team," said a senior Labor MK. "He doesn't consult with us anymore. He just talks with his colleagues in the defense ministry or prime ministers office... When the time comes to get reelected he'll remember he needs us."
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