Analysis: Peretz has nothing to lose

The three new polls putting Labor chairman Amir Peretz in third or fourth place in the Labor primary race slated for May 28, far behind the two leading candidates, MK Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak, have set the stage for the final act in Peretz's astonishing term as party head. Despite the fact that none of the polls give him even 20 percent of the vote, he is far from giving up the fight. His supporters reminded everyone yesterday that at the same stage of the last primary campaign, a year and a half ago, he was even further behind in the polls, and still went on to win. In many ways, Peretz is much more comfortable being back in the underdog position. The chairmanship didn't sit easily upon him, the Defense Ministry with all its obligations even less. Peretz is an opposition street-scrapper by nature. He was in his element fighting the government as head of the Histadrut labor federation. Now that the pollsters have written him off, the pressure is off and he can roll up his sleeves for another dirty fight. Peretz's campaign is relying on three factors to keep him in the race. First, they believe that his base of support is larger than the surveys can measure. They hope that when the vote draws near, party members will realize that Barak and Ayalon are cut from the same elitist cloth and that only Peretz has a chance of reconnecting Labor with the parts of the electorate that haven't voted for the party in three decades. Second, Peretz still has extensive contacts within the trade unions that will give his campaign a much more efficient vote-day operation than his rivals. Good organization can be worth 5 percent and even more. Third, while none of his rivals currently hold executive office, Peretz will have countless opportunities as defense minister to provoke confrontations with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as he did last week over the long delayed evacuation of illegal outposts in the West Bank. Peretz might even escalate matters to a full-blown coalition crisis, rallying Labor loyalists around his standard. Until two weeks ago, Peretz still had the option of relinquishing the Defense Ministry and shifting to Social Affairs. Now that the job has gone to Isaac Herzog, Peretz knows that if he loses the primary, he is headed for backbench ignominy. He has nothing to lose and over the next two and a half months he will be eager to pick fights with Olmert and others in the hope of boosting his popularity. There is one risk, though. Since none of the other Labor ministers are supporting him, (with the possible exception of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, but even her loyalties are uncertain) they might choose to ignore his antics in the run-up to the primary and decline to follow his lead in any cabinet mutinies. Peretz could well lose the last vestiges of his leadership even before Labor members go to the polls. But he might not care that much anymore.