Analysis: A chairman on probation

With less than 20% of the vote, the incumbent chairman, Amir Peretz, has been unceremoniously kicked out of the job after just 19 months.

Muddled exit polls, razor-thin margins and alleged ballot tampering all mean that the Labor primary was much too close to call, at least until Tuesday morning, and if the police are called in, perhaps for much longer. We don't even know whether there will be a second round. At least one of the front-runners looks close to the 40 percent threshold, but not close enough. Two results are clear, though. With less than 20% of the vote, the incumbent chairman, Amir Peretz, has been unceremoniously kicked out of the job after just 19 months, and all the talk of a "social agenda" is officially over. Labor wants a general - it just seems incapable of deciding which one. And that's the second clear result. Neither Ami Ayalon nor Ehud Barak have succeeded in sweeping the Labor membership off their feet. The grassroots are distinctly underwhelmed both by the devil they know and by the newcomer. The implication is that whichever of them is finally proclaimed the victor, in this round or the next, he will win a qualified mandate and receive limited allegiance from the party. He will be a chairman on probation. The new chairman will not be allowed to embark on any radical initiatives, especially if they are unpopular with the party's central committee. That includes the decision on whether to leave Ehud Olmert's coalition. Labor's central committee has never shown an inclination to voluntarily leave governments, especially not this one, in which Labor has some choice ministries. In the past, the central committee would have rubber-stamped any decision by a newly elected chairman. This one won't have that luxury. Ayalon promised not to sit together with Olmert, but qualified that later. Barak also made a tortuous commitment to seek a different government or to try and bring national elections forward. Neither of them will be overwrought if the central committee forces them to stay in the coalition. Ayalon and Barak both realize that whoever wins will have his work cut out for him to prove worthy of the leadership, and will have to go through another primary before the next election. On the one hand, this looks like a poisoned chalice, a recipe for chewing up and spitting out yet another Labor chairman. But on the other, the new leader will be entering his office with already lowered expectations. This finally might be the chance for Labor to gain a real leader. Barak might prove he really learned his lesson, or Ayalon could show us a different, cleaner brand of politics. The public is certainly looking for something like that, and right now there doesn't seem to be too much competition out there. A last word about Peretz. He offered a complete change, a total break from business as usual. For a few weeks after his election to the Labor leadership in January 2006, the polls smiled at him and Israelis seemed to be prepared for something different, a leader from a development town who really cared about the daily concerns of ordinary people. But he very quickly lost control of his party. Shimon Peres and other senior members defected to Kadima, and Peretz became a national laughing stock. His performance in the March 2006 general election was dismal, and then he got the chance to rebuild his prestige as defense minister. The war in Lebanon ruined all that. The Labor membership is hardly representative of Israeli society as a whole, but this time they are speaking for almost all of us. We need someone to fight our wars for us. Maybe one day we'll be able to vote for a leader with a social agenda, but not just yet.