Analysis: A face-off between generals and social activists

The arithmetic seems to favor Barak, but Herzog's choice could be critical.

eitan cabel disapproves (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
eitan cabel disapproves
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The war inside Labor pits the party's generals against its social activists over whether to enter Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu's government. Leading the fight to join a Netanyahu government "for the good of the country" are Defense Minister and former chief of General Staff Ehud Barak, Deputy Defense Minister Maj.-Gen. (res.) Matan Vilna'i and former defense minister Brig.-Gen. (res.) Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer. Strengthening this camp with some serious social welfare credentials is Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini, a powerful force inside Labor. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon carries the moshavim sector. Barak's camp believes it is in the country's interests to have Labor join Netanyahu so that his government can better deal with the crucial security and economic challenges that lie ahead. Barak does not want to languish in the opposition, especially if Kadima's Tzipi Livni is the leader of the opposition. Opposing Barak is the camp trying to move Labor into the opposition, to rebrand the party as a serious alternative to the Likud, fighting for social issues and calling for peace, while moving away from its current image as a "hanger-on" to any ruling party. In this camp are social flag-bearers Shelly Yacimovich, Ophir Paz-Pines and Daniel Ben-Simon, who are joined by Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, former defense minister Amir Peretz (who is not considered a security man), Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Ghaleb Majadle. Both camps will try to convince Labor's 1,460 central committee delegates to vote in their favor at next week's convention on the question of joining Netanyahu's government. Unofficial numbers published in the Hebrew press have the Barak camp gaining 475 votes and the opposing camp garnering 585, while some 400 delegates are currently undecided. But Labor officials from both sides of the divide believe that Barak's camp is stronger than the numbers published in the press. While numerically stronger in the Knesset faction, the "social camp" has slightly less support on the ground, according to activists, and is less solidified around a single leader. Yacimovich and Paz-Pines are leading the charge, with Peretz working quietly behind the scenes. It is a relatively weak leadership facing a strong lineup of defense and social powerhouses. Eini is considered the party's top social flag-bearer - more than Yacimovich, Paz-Pines and Peretz put together. Eini is the man visiting bankrupt factories in the periphery every day, working out deals with creditors and finding new owners to take over failed businesses, so that factory workers won't lose their jobs. Eini is the man Netanyahu is calling for advice on welfare and employment issues. MKs Avishai Braverman and Orit Noked say in the same breath that they want to go into the opposition but are also keen to hear what Netanyahu has to offer - i.e., they are very much open to being swayed. Furthermore, while Ben-Simon has gone on record saying he is opposed to joining Netanyahu's government, he has also said he will accept any verdict reached by the central committee. The key player may prove to be Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who faces a real dilemma. As a successful minister and a powerful member of Labor with many supporters, he sees himself as a potential leader of the party. If he sides with current chairman Barak and enters Netanyahu's government, he will keep his ministerial seat but lose the support of up to half the party - and could find himself blamed along with Barak for Labor's gradual disintegration within a right-wing government - thereby harming his future leadership chances. But if he chooses to stay out, he will lose his ministerial position; Barak may split the party, taking four, five or more MKs with him, and Herzog will face the prospect of a leadership battle against Yacimovich, Paz-Pines and Peretz for a party with a paltry seven or so Knesset seats, dropping it to the fifth-largest party. As things stand, Herzog believes he can take over the mantle of leadership from Barak at the next Labor primaries. After this week's split and next week's possible vote, Barak can never hope to rule once again over a united Labor; his time at the helm ends with this last bid to retain the Defense Ministry. If Noked (of the kibbutzim sector) joins Barak, along with Simhon's moshavim, the large Tel Aviv district and the Histadrut, then there is a good chance that Herzog will join them, banking on their support for a future leadership bid. If Barak manages to overcome the legal hurdle placed before him by Labor's legal adviser (a Cabel associate) and hold a vote on Tuesday, party officials believe his proposal will carry the day. Right now the momentum is with Barak's camp, with Ben-Eliezer and Eini working feverishly to convince their loyal "divisions" to back their stand. If it were up to these two, they would hold the convention today. If the various sectors join Barak's bid, and just a few of Fuad's Arabs do likewise, there might be just enough votes to approve Barak's proposal to enter Netanyahu's government. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs