Politics: Reaching for the brass ring

Labor's leadership race has kicked off with cynics criticizing contenders' coveting of defense portfolio.

labor candidates 88 (photo credit: )
labor candidates 88
(photo credit: )
The candidates in the May 28 Labor Party leadership primary had been running in place until Sunday morning at 11:42 a.m., when former prime minister Ehud Barak formally joined the race - with a letter faxed to Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel. That fax served as the starting gun. Since then, the candidates have all been running in different directions. And if you listen to them, they are not even running for the same position. Barak wrote in the first line of the letter that he had decided to contend for the position of defense minister. He only mentioned the Labor chairmanship in the third line, revealing both his priorities and his political strategy. MK Ophir Paz-Pines said in a speech to party activists loyal to him on Tuesday that the Labor chairmanship was not a job that could be handled by moonlighting. He offered to appoint Barak defense minister if Barak would let him be the party chairman. MK Ami Ayalon decided in a meeting with his advisers on Sunday night that his strategy would be to remind voters that the race was not just for Labor chairman and defense minister, but for Labor's likely prime ministerial candidate. Incumbent Labor chairman Amir Peretz is running to save his political career. His advisers have told him that he should shift from the Defense Ministry to a socioeconomic portfolio as soon as the Winograd Commission investigating the war in Lebanon, as expected, issues a preliminary report next month clearing him of blame. That would allow him to remain in the cabinet even if he loses the race. And the fifth candidate, MK Danny Yatom, is running to make a statement about his electoral value and political independence from his former boss, Barak, that could help his chances of being a minister in the next government. Ayalon, a former head of the Navy, likes to compare his rivals to befuddled prospective ship captains who don't know where they are going and won't get there no matter how strong the wind blows. Regardless of what position they think they are running for, the job they would get is the leadership of a bankrupt party with a massive debt, a dying electorate and a suicidal atmosphere that has resulted in four Labor leaders losing their jobs in the last five years. THE CANDIDATES know that Labor leader isn't a much better job than captain of the Titanic. But they are willing to brave any iceberg to get command of the ship. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin mocked the candidates to head his former party, saying that Labor members had truly hit rock bottom if they were fighting over who gets to be defense minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, and not over who should lead the effort to topple it. Both of the frontrunners in the polls, Barak and Ayalon, have indicated that they would not want a general election any time soon, because they want time to serve as defense minister and use the position to prove themselves as prime ministerial material. Barak could be defense minister without being an MK, but he cannot be prime minister without a general election. Even if Kadima disintegrated and the makeup of the Knesset changed, Barak would not be able to topple Olmert and form a new government with the current Knesset. The Knesset passed the so-called "Bibi-bill" in 2000 that was intended to allow Binyamin Netanyahu to become prime minister even though he was not an MK. But it was repealed along with the direct election of the prime minister on the day that former prime minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001. Peretz complained this week that serving as defense minister took too much time away from him and prevented him from campaigning. He said that he was at a competitive disadvantage in a race in which he is the only minister. But National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer used the defense portfolio effectively to capture the Labor leadership against Avraham Burg, who as Knesset speaker, had free time every night to crisscross the country and campaign. Ben-Eliezer, who will be Barak's political benefactor in the campaign, advised Barak to maximize his military credentials as his top political asset. SO IF Barak gets elected, Labor will come full circle in just over a year from having a party chairman who talked only about socioeconomic issues to having a leader who wants the party to focus on matters of security. Barak's advisers said it was only a coincidence that he returned to public life half a year after the war in Lebanon. While Barak was interviewed regularly by the foreign press at the start of the war, when Barak delivers a speech at a United Kibbutz Movement event at Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley on Sunday, it will be exactly six months and a day since his last public statement in Hebrew to Channel 2. Barak used the interview to defend the hasty withdrawal from Lebanon when he was prime minister in 2000, which many MKs blamed for the summer's war. Peretz and Ayalon intend to criticize the withdrawal in order to question Barak's security credentials. "Before we left Lebanon, rockets were fired that could reach Haifa," Barak said. "This is an attempt to test us. We need to look forward, not back. The government needs to act against Hizbullah with full force. The conditions have never been better to act to expel Hizbullah from the Israeli-Lebanese border." Barak has not said since then whether he believes the war was a success. People who met with him one-on-one this week said he did not answer such questions. But Barak's advisers say that will change next week, when he starts speaking publicly every day. The kibbutzniks at Afikim will be able to ask anything they want before the cameras. The press will have to wait a little longer. "Talking to the press never helped him before, but he will eventually talk to everyone," promised Eldad Yaniv, Barak's former bureau chief, who is the closest man to him today. "He is trying to fix mistakes of the past. He has to be more like Sharon." What Yaniv meant by that is that Barak would not return to the days when he was criticized for giving too many interviews in a constant effort to spin public opinion. Instead, he will try to measure his words, the way Sharon did. "He will say that he learned from his first term, so people will know that just like Rabin and Sharon, his second term will be better," Yaniv said. "He will go from Labor member to Labor member and ask for another chance, simple as that." In Barak's previous comeback in 2005, he called himself a "marathon runner," but he was criticized for going abroad frequently instead of working on his campaign. This time, his advisers say he is serious about returning to politics full-time. "He will probably go abroad once or twice to close his business dealings, but that's it," Yaniv said. "He is running with full-force."