Politics: They're at it again!

Nine contenders are butting heads before racing to lead the Labor Party.

peretz knesset 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
peretz knesset 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Amir Peretz's victory in Sunday's Labor central committee vote on remaining in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition should have given him a big boost ahead of the start of the leadership race. Under normal circumstances, such a victory for a party leader would give the kind of momentum necessary to start off the race on the right foot, and the breathing space necessary to govern without having to worry about political machinations. But Israel is no normal country and there are no normal circumstances in the chaos of Labor Party politics. The day after the central committee vote, Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines quit the cabinet against Peretz's will and announced that he would challenge him for the Labor leadership. Paz-Pines will be joined in the race set for May by as many as eight other candidates: Peretz, former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and MKs Ami Ayalon, Avishay Braverman, Matan Vilna'i and Danny Yatom. Asked how many candidates there would be at the start of the race, Ayalon, who is first in the polls, joked: "Nineteen, I think" - the number of MKs in the Labor faction. Chances are that by the end of the race there will only be a few candidates left, after some decide not to run, or to endorse a candidate with a better chance at the last minute. Several of the candidates are not even running to win. Some just want to improve their standing in the party; some are running because they don't want to feel left out; and some are only running in an effort to prevent another candidate from winning. In the last Labor Party leadership race a year ago, two candidates ran on a platform of preventing the reelection of then-interim chairman Shimon Peres. Nowadays, the candidate in the line of fire is Peretz, the defense minister at least until March. Yatom has said openly that he would quit the race if his remaining could result in a Peretz victory. He said that in such a scenario, he would try to get every candidate to quit the race except the man who stood the best chance of defeating the incumbent. Barak tried a similar move when he quit last year's race and endorsed Peres. But Ben-Eliezer refused to quit then, and Vilna'i's endorsement of Peres came too late to prevent a Peretz victory. PERETZ IS at a disadvantage in the race, because his responsibilities as defense minister during ongoing fighting in the Gaza Strip prevent him from having enough time to campaign. Peretz's associates said earlier in the week that he would start campaigning in Labor branches, to take advantage of momentum from Sunday's vote, but instead, the Gaza Strip operations escalated, and Peretz had to remain in his fancy office at the posh new Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. Normally, coming into a race as defense minister would give a candidate prestige and an air of authority that would give the contestant an advantage. But Peretz is not respected as defense minister. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Labor members want him out of the post, and the portfolio has become a major liability. Peretz also has a disadvantage that he is coming into the race as the incumbent Labor leader and not, like last time, as the incumbent leader of the Histadrut Labor Federation. As Histadrut leader, he had an army of thousands of staffers beholden to him around the country to work on his behalf, using Histadrut vehicles, phone lines and even funds. As Labor leader, he has a bankrupt party that has had to fire more staff recently. THE FREQUENT Labor leadership races have not helped the party's financial crisis. Labor has had four leadership races and two for temporary leader since Barak stepped down following his electoral defeat in February 2001. One of the reasons that Labor races are held so often is that the party's bylaws require a new leadership primary within 14 months of a Labor prime ministerial candidate's losing of a general election. Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel wants to change the bylaws, which he believes cause unnecessary instability in the party. Changing the rules could artificially extend Peretz's tenure, and even help him emerge victorious. His stepping stone to victory in last year's race was a drive in which he signed up thousands of new members across the country. Not having the Histadrut's help will make another successful drive more difficult, but delaying the race would allow holding a longer drive, which could enable Peretz to sign up enough people to keep his job against all odds. The Labor candidates are divided over when they want the race to be held, with Peretz and Barak working to delay it, and Ayalon, Braverman and Vilna'i insisting on keeping it in May. But no candidate wants the race held sooner than Paz-Pines, whose risky resignation from the cabinet over the addition of Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman will be long forgotten if the race is not held as soon as possible. Paz-Pines took a gamble when he decided to leave the cabinet at a time when it was not even clear when the Labor primary would be. He repeatedly said in a Monday press conference that he had not intended to announce his candidacy until much later, but the rapid developments of the coalition expansion gave him no choice. When the Lieberman story first broke, Paz-Pines invited Herzog and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon to a caf near his Ra'anana home to seek their advice. They warned him that he would end up falling into a trap, but he didn't listen. They chastised him later for failing to take their advice and allowing the news developments to continue spiraling out of control until he ended up outside the cabinet and in the race prematurely. NORMALLY WHEN a politician announces his candidacy, he brings with him political allies to the press conference as a show of force. Former OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled has made a career out of sitting in the background in such press conferences with multiple candidates for prime minister. But Paz-Pines was all alone at his event, with nothing but a well-placed Israeli flag and a picture of Olmert on his office wall behind him. To make matters worse, his aide turned off the air conditioner ahead of the press conference, because it made noise that bothered the cameramen, so Paz-Pines sweated a la Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, not being a cabinet minister will give Paz-Pines the time necessary to work on bringing new members into the party and improving his relationship with key activists in Labor branches across the country. Paz-Pines needs to build a camp in the party to compete with the established camps of Peretz, Barak, Vilna'i and Ben-Eliezer. Ayalon and Braverman have been on that circuit for six months, taking advantage of Peretz's decision to leave them out of the cabinet. The two newcomers to Labor decided during the summer to form an alliance and not run against one another. A tag team of a security man like Ayalon with an economic expert like Braverman would seem to be a good recipe for victory. But the pact seems to have already come apart; as the television show, Survivor, has proven, such alliances are always short-lived, and tend to result in two such allies becoming enemies. One top Labor official predicted this week that in the end of the race, there would be only three candidates: Peretz, Ayalon and Braverman. He noted that Herzog, Ben-Eliezer, Vilna'i and even Barak are seriously considering sitting this race out, and Yatom's candidacy is viewed as temporary. Barak and Vilna'i were both hurt by their decisions to quit last year's race and endorse Peres's ill-fated candidacy, especially Vilna'i, whose excuse for leaving the contest was a promise from Peres to name him defense minister in his cabinet, a vow that in hindsight looks like a joke. But the Labor official added that at this stage in last year's race, Peretz was at four percent in the polls and no one gave him a chance to win, so anything could happen and anyone can emerge victorious. He said the only thing clear in this contest is that, unlike in past Labor races, Shimon Peres is not going to lose.