Analysis: Ousted Peretz holds the key to succession

An alliance between Barak and the outgoing defense minister suddenly looks less improbable.

It's impossible to assess the motives of all the 67,000 voters in Monday's Labor primary, but it's hard to say that ideology and the party's future played a major part in their decision for many of them. Otherwise, how can one explain Defense Minister Amir Peretz sweeping the Arab sector so soon after the Second Lebanon War? Appointing Ghaleb Majadle as the first Arab minister obviously paid off. Ehud Barak's success in the Arab and Druse sectors, despite his record as prime minister during the October 2000 riots, can similarly be tied to the efforts of his main supporter, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, with his fabled contacts among the tribal bosses. Another of Barak's backers, Shalom Simhon, did the same thing for the "millionaire from Akirov Towers" in the moshavim and other agricultural communities. Deal-making and local loyalties confounded the pollsters and handed Barak his first-round victory and Peretz a much larger than expected share of the vote. For Labor, it seems, it's back to politics as usual and the bosses are as firmly in control as ever. When cynical power-broking rules the day, an alliance between Barak and Peretz all of a sudden doesn't seem as improbable as it did yesterday. So what if on the day before the primary, Peretz had accused Barak of deserting the party to make millions abroad? Now it's all a question of which of the two remaining candidates can make the ousted party leader a better offer. Peretz's main objective is remaining a major player in Labor and he is bringing his 22 percent of the vote to the bargaining table. Can he truly deliver those votes to his favored successor in next month's runoff? Thousands of Peretz voters would rather leave the party than vote for Barak, but the outgoing chairman's impressive showing proves that his apparatus is still effective. Ami Ayalon and Barak will both have to take him into account. He might have lost the leadership, but he will still be a factor in the second round. The 8% of party members who voted for Ophir Paz-Pines are from the ideological wing of the party, attracted by Pines' principled stand against remaining in the government. They will doubtless prefer Ayalon, who is the closest to their position, but that still leaves him with less than 40% of the vote, and he would have to cleave away at least half of Peretz's voters to win. Ayalon's disadvantage is that there is little he can offer Peretz. Since he has promised not to join an Olmert-led coalition, Ayalon can't realistically promise any job in a future cabinet. His main tactic, therefore, will likely be to try and connect with the voters over Peretz's head, presenting his policies in the hope that they will be convinced he is the man to resume the neglected "social agenda." He is also aware that making a political deal with Peretz could spoil his "clean politics" image and leave some of Paz-Pines's voters, or even the members who chose him in the first round, staying at home in the second round. Barak will have no such inhibitions. The price is clear: Peretz has now lost the Defense Ministry, and in order to stay relevant he needs a new senior cabinet post. Barak will have to give him assurances that if he wins the second round, Labor will get a new portfolio commensurate with Peretz's expectations. To promise him that, a deal will have to be reached first with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert is eager to see Barak win Labor, since this represents his best chance of achieving coalition stability and riding out the storm of the Winograd Committee's final report in three months. But what price will he be prepared to pay to help Barak emerge victorious? Peretz's representatives have intimated that they are not prepared to deliver for anything less than the Finance Ministry. Olmert steadfastly refused to give Peretz the coveted portfolio last year, but circumstances have changed and, as it is, the post is currently vacant. The name of the game now is survival and Olmert might be tempted to secure himself a period of grace. On the other hand, the Defense and Finance ministries are a stiff price for the questionable loyalty of a small yet fractious coalition partner, so Olmert will probably try to hold out, offering Peretz a lesser "social" ministry in the inevitable reshuffle. None of these three players, though, can afford to drive too hard a bargain. Olmert, Barak and Peretz need one another. An Ayalon victory could spell political disaster for them all.