Analysis: The Labor establishment goes for Barak

The announcement by Eitan Cabel that he is backing Ehud Barak in the May 28 Labor primary completed the list of party heavy-hitters who have declared themselves for the former prime minister. Cabel is also party secretary-general and even though he promised not to take an active part in the Barak campaign, it certainly means that the party machinery won't be working for any of his rivals. Cabel's endorsement, coming on top of those from ministers Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon and Isaac Herzog, and influential Knesset members Matan Vilna'i and Orit Noked, have transformed Barak, who even at the peak of his political career was always an outsider within Labor, into the party establishment's official candidate. The standard reason given by all the veteran political operators for their support is that Israel now needs an experienced defense minister, and you don't get more experienced than Barak. But they're politicians and we can suspect them of having additional motives. The other front-running candidate, MK Ami Ayalon, has already promised that should he win the party leadership race, he "will have some tough questions for Ehud Olmert" before deciding whether to keep Labor in the coalition. Barak, on the other hand, has pledged to get straight to work as defense minister, and not to waste any time on party politics. That's just what the Labor ministers need. They definitely don't want to return to the opposition benches or to plunge themselves into the uncertain maelstrom of primaries and general elections, when theoretically they still have over three years to serve in the cabinet. Barak promises industrial quiet, he's a good friend of Prime Minister Olmert and his views are no different from those of the Kadima leadership. With him at Labor's helm, the coalition is almost guaranteed a long life. The other main motivation for the endorsements is that despite Ayalon's small lead in the polls, the seasoned Laborites still rate Barak's chances of winning as higher. Ayalon might epitomize the public's desire for a fresh face and a new and cleaner type of politician, but public popularity doesn't always counts for much in a closed primary. Good organization, experience in deal-making and contacts in high-turnout, close-knit voting districts such as the kibbutzim and the Arab sector are often crucial. Ayalon is perceived as lacking in all these fields. Since none of the candidates are even close to the 40 percent needed for a first-round victory, the two candidates who make it into the second round will have to use all their negotiating skills to gain the votes of the discarded candidates' supporters. The belief in the party is that Barak will find it a lot easier to cut deals than the principled Ayalon. The ministers supporting him will do all they can to help him. Even thought they're putting their money on Barak, they all know that he could still lose and are sending a clear warning to Ayalon, who so far has received the support of only one MK, Avishay Braverman. They are reminding him of the fate of the last two mavericks who came out of nowhere to capture the party leadership, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz. They will have to work day and night, move mountains and face a generally hostile party and if at the end of the day they don't succeed in returning Labor to power, they'll get hell.