Analysis: Labor's fearful leaders

This has been an awful primary for Labor. Whoever ultimately wins the chairmanship will be assuming the leadership of a beaten, dispirited and rudderless party. Instead of emerging a triumphant victor, ready to fight the next election with the surge in the polls usually enjoyed by a winner, he will emerge with a bitter taste in the mouth, with all the hard work awaiting him. None of the three main contenders ran an efficient campaign. Amir Peretz, who should have been able to use his post as defense minister as a major boost, appeared the burnt-out underdog; the only consensus within the party seems to be that he has to leave. Former prime minister Ehud Barak, eager not to antagonize the party's base, ran a weird, silent campaign, breaking cover only to conduct his bizarre makeshift press conference on the lawn at Kibbutz Sdot Yam. MK Ami Ayalon, who began the race as the newcomer, a fresh breeze of change wafting above the overfamiliar pack of hacks, bogged himself down with contradictory statements and lacked a clear agenda on the crucial issues of security and diplomacy. There is no great love or admiration within the party for any of the leading candidates. The only one who commands a degree of genuine respect is MK Ophir Paz-Pines, for his principled stand on leaving the coalition, but this is the very reason why only a small group of ideologues will vote for him. The real question is, where will Labor's 100,000 members find the motivation to come and vote for yet another uninspiring new leader. In the end, it will be a question of who they don't want as leader. Ayalon is hoping that the antipathy toward Peretz combined with the anger many still harbor toward Barak will move enough members to vote for an inexperienced and rather inept political operator. Peretz still believes there are enough members who, despite all his mistakes over the last 18 months, don't want to see a former general taking control of the party once again. Barak is banking that the party's grassroots hate being out of power more than they hate him. His entire campaign has been designed to convince them he is the only one capable of leading Labor out of the political wilderness. This could have been Labor's big chance to finally reassert itself after almost a decade of failure. With Kadima in disarray, Likud still on a long and uncertain road to recovery, Meretz marginalized and Shinui gone, Labor could finally resume its historical role as the party of the political center, a natural candidate for power. Instead, Peretz, Ayalon and Barak have been flip-flopping, falling over each other with convoluted answers to the only relevant political question on the agenda: Will they continue the coalition with Kadima? The real reason for their prevarication isn't that they want to stay in the government but are afraid to say so; the truth of the matter is that they just don't know. They are all too afraid to take the initiative. Barak is anxious not to ruin what he believes is his new and improved image, Peretz has been stung too many times over the last few months and Ayalon simply hasn't got the experience. They all prefer to wait out developments within Kadima, in the hope that a rebellion against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will solve their problems. Making an attempt to recreate the political scene on their own terms is simply beyond them. So on Monday, instead of selecting a new leader, Labor will be appointing itself another caretaker.