(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The election date is yet to be set, but the main question of the upcoming contest is already clear: Will Amir Peretz manage to duplicate his surprise win of last week's Labor primaries and sweep up enough voters from other parties to position Labor as a viable party of government?
On the way to the ballot box, he will have to overcome another hurdle - winning over the media.
If this week was anything to go by (and if we've learned anything from last week, it's that relying on opinion polls is suicidal), the elections are going to be an Ariel Sharon vs. Peretz head-on. This heralds a unique dilemma for the local press. In the right corner, a serving prime minister who over the last couple of years has been built up as the rather surprising media darling, swaddled in cotton throughout the disengagement process and after. In the left corner, a colorful, amusing challenger, with clear-cut, left-wing views and the appealing air of an underdog.
Sharon will bring to the fight the credit he has earned in the eyes of journalists for promising and delivering disengagement and his image as a strong leader. In addition - if he indeed beats Binyamin Netanyahu in the Likud primaries - he will gain bonus points for vanquishing the media's ultimate antichrist.
However, he will also be burdened by a handicap in the form of a fractious, unappetizing parliamentary list - as it appears now, he will not split with the Likud - filled with sleazy candidates. And this is in addition to his own corruption issues, as well as those of his sons.
Peretz, of course, will try to get mileage out of these issues. He will portray himself as Mr. Clean, while fending off inevitable charges of his own corruption in the Histadrut. And he will run on two parallel platforms: wooing the left-wing and senior members of the media - with the most peacenik manifesto that Labor ever adopted - while simultaneously trying to attract the right-leaning working class with a populist social-democratic agenda.
Political aficionados are in for a hot winter, with two professional heavy-weights pitted against each other: Peretz's strategic advisor, Motti Morell, against Sharon's spin-doctor, Eyal Arad. These two cynical and experienced operators will employ every dirty trick they've got up their sleeves and invent a few new ones. (There is an interesting clash of interests here, since Morell is also working to groom Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz within the Likud to become Sharon's heir.)
Despite the fact that most of the media's agenda-setters instinctively lean towards Peretz's views on the peace process, they still have some major problems with him.
The first is that they are still enamored of Uncle Arik. And if he confounds their hopes by staying in the Likud, they will have to undergo an embarrassing about-face in order to support Peretz, who immediately after his victory proclaimed on Channel 2's Meet the Press that he would not join a coalition with the Likud after the elections.
The second is that while most senior journalists are left-leaning, in financial matters they are ardent capitalists. Even if in their hearts they're Peretz, in their heads and more importantly in their wallets, they are Sharon and even Netanyahu.
The third and perhaps serious is that Peretz is just too leftist/socialist/Sephardi/outspoken to be taken seriously by them as a potential prime minister. If he doesn't begin surging in the polls soon, we will start seeing headlines such as: "Peretz isn't taking off."
All these problems have been evident since Peretz's victory last week. In other words, the new head of the Labor Party enjoyed a brief honeymoon before the knives were unsheathed. Last Friday's papers rejoiced unabashedly, with a large measure of gloating over Shimon Peres's loss, cute headlines on Peretz's mustache and a mocking of Sharon for suddenly talking about the Likud's social agenda.
But as soon as their hormones settled down, they started describing Peretz - with ample ammunition from "unnamed senior Labor figures" - as a power-hungry dictator and clumsy bully.
It's enough to compare the Friday and Monday covers of Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv to witness this about-face. For an even better example, one need only compare the Friday and Monday columns of Yediot senior business editor Sever Plocker. On Friday, he assured us that Peretz was no Bolshevist and "in favor of a competitive, but human, economy." By Monday, he was seriously questioning the veracity of Peretz's economic proclamations and sadly concluding that as long as Peretz is seen as the lackey of the big unions, he will never win the elections.
The shameful way the media mocked Peretz's delivery of a speech in English before donors to the Rabin Center, showed how shallow and fickle their support was to begin with. In just three days, Peretz had gone from being a leader of the people to a stupid Moroccan immigrant. (The Sephardi issue is strictly non-PC, but it will definitely play a major role in these elections.)
The fact that most Israeli news organizations don't endorse a candidate will enable the pundits and editors to carry on zigzagging between Sharon and Peretz all the way to the ballot box. The only major Hebrew paper that does make an endorsement, Ha'aretz, will clearly be supporting Peretz. Over the last few weeks, it has already been clearing the way to opposing Sharon, in a series of editorials blaming him for squandering disengagement by not resuming the peace process. The paper retaliated on Tuesday against the anti-Peretz backlash with an editorial titled "Let Peretz carry on with his labors"- in Hebrew it sounds a lot better - but the interesting thing was the voice of the upper echelons of Ha'aretz columnists, including Yoel Marcus, Amir Oren and Gideon Samet, all supplying Peretz with a wealth of patronizing advice and a clear message to wit: Listen to us if you want to be elected.