Politics: A show of (held) hands

The race for the Labor Party leadership is flavored by an American phenomenon - the running mate.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
If you were hoping that Israel would follow America's lead by initiating regional elections, you probably won't be consoled by the adoption of another component of the American political system in the current race for Labor Party leader: the running mate. The status of the number-two man on a ticket for prime minister has taken on increasing importance since vice prime minister Ehud Olmert replaced Ariel Sharon. The Labor race has been quiet so far, but it is expected to attract more attention after the Winograd Committee report comes out, especially if it signals that elections are around the corner. Wherever MK Ami Ayalon goes on the campaign trail, his chief supporter, MK Avishay Braverman, is not far behind. They get introduced together, walk into the room together and raise their arms in the air together holding hands just like an American ticket for president and vice president. With the possible exception of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, no Israeli election campaign has ever given such equal prominence to a duo of leaders who ostensibly complement each other. Ayalon, the security man, is counting on the reputation of Braverman, the internationally renowned economist, to win over Labor voters in his May 28 showdown against former prime minister Ehud Barak and three other candidates. Barak also has a running mate, albeit in a less official capacity. National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has become Barak's chief political patron, a close adviser and his most outspoken defender in the press and at political parlor meetings across the country. In a typical meeting with Labor branch heads at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters last week, the party's top activists took turns bashing Barak, then Ben-Eliezer delivered a lengthy defense of his candidate and Barak closed the meeting with a short speech thanking people for coming. Anyone who doubted that Ben-Eliezer was Barak's running mate received proof this week when he took on the traditional running mate's role of attacking the other ticket's number one. He found inspiration in 1988 Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen's infamous "you're no Jack Kennedy" insult of his Republican counterpart, Dan Quayle. "I heard that Ami Ayalon is calling himself Rabin's successor," Ben-Eliezer told Ma'ariv. "I worked with Rabin. I was close with him. And I want to say to Ami Ayalon: You're no Rabin." BEN-ELIEZER DOESN'T like being called Barak's running mate, because his support for him is limited. He doesn't endorse Barak enthusiastically, merely calling him the best alternative among the candidates to help the country prepare for the next war. But Barak supporters say that Ben-Eliezer is a much more effective running mate for Barak than Braverman is for Ayalon and that Barak and Ben-Eliezer complement each other better. "Barak's weakness is the Labor activists who are angry at him but love Ben-Eliezer, and while Barak is seen as aloof, Ben-Eliezer is considered the ultimate man of the people," one Barak supporter said. "Ayalon and Braverman, however, have the same strengths and weaknesses. They are both clean and untainted, but they are both also inexperienced." Ayalon supporters are hoping that Ben-Eliezer's image as the consummate wheeler-dealer politician turns away potential Barak backers who are concerned that clean politics will be a major issue in the next general election. They want voters who don't think it matters which security man replaces the civilian Amir Peretz to look at who the number-two man in Labor would be. "It's clear that other partnerships are unpopular in the public," Braverman said. "Ami and I entered politics because we saw that the country needed to be changed. We already said back then that we would work together. We later decided that we would be each other's number-two. Before the war, I led in polls. After the war, we saw that security experience would be necessary and Ami became the candidate." Like Ben-Eliezer, Braverman has taken on the traditional vice presidential candidate's role by becoming one of Barak's fiercest critics. He attacks Barak for trying to silence the campaign, for his capitalist economic policies and for his record as prime minister. "They call us inexperienced, but failure is not experience," Braverman said. "In universities and corporations, they don't allow people to come back if they fail. In France and Germany, they find new people to take power. In the American system, if the president loses an election, he goes home. Israel is the only place where former prime ministers enter the business sector, make money and then come back. It's not ethical." Braverman said voters would be confused if Labor shifted from Peretz, who emphasized the economy in the party's campaign in last year's election, to Barak, who says he is running to be defense minister. "I understand the need to look at security, but making it the only issue is a strategic mistake," Braverman said. "It's just as much a mistake as talking about nothing but peace for 25 years while neglecting socioeconomic issues." So far, Ayalon and Braverman have managed to keep their egos in check and get along. Their partnership has survived long after their short-lived anti-Peretz alliance with Labor MKs Matan Vilna'i, Colette Avital and Danny Yatom. But the bond between the two could get shaken if they win the race. Ayalon has promised a reshuffle of Labor ministers he believes are not suited for their ministries. Ayalon is expected to demand the Defense portfolio for himself, but a source close to Olmert said he might be interested in Braverman becoming finance minister. While Ayalon said in the past that his dream job would be education minister, it remains to be seen whether he would be willing to swallow his pride and allow his running mate to receive a more senior portfolio. But Braverman said he is convinced that his partnership with Ayalon will withstand the challenges that lie ahead and that running mates in Israeli politics are here to stay. "We are unfortunately taking little of the American democratic system while we have taken so much of American culture," Braverman said. "In the past, campaigns were based on making the number-one man into a superstar, and it hasn't worked. When we shook hands on running together, it started a new phenomenon in Israel."