Party Time: Peretz fighting fires

"The fiesta," as the media dubbed Labor, is now a somber shadow of its former self.

labor ad 298.88 (photo credit:
labor ad 298.88
(photo credit:
Only six months ago, Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz was dubbed "Huggy" by his party colleagues for his effusive embraces. Eyebrows were raised when he smothered journalist Shelly Yacimovich in hugs and kisses, and then eyeballs bulged when Peretz almost kissed Avishay Braverman on the mouth during a Labor bash welcoming the two. But there's not much smooching around the chairman these days. Both Braverman and Yacimovich are now the recipients of more chastisement than cuddles, and Peretz's signature kisses have become weighed handshakes. Only a week before the elections, Peretz told The Jerusalem Post about his vision for the Labor Party, speaking in dreamy terms of a united party at the forefront of socioeconomic reforms, battling for the poor and championing the blue-collar class. Three months later, the unity of that campaign has ended. The party once dubbed "the fiesta" by journalists covering Labor's campy election whistle-stop tour, is now a somber shadow of its former self. Labor officials say that Peretz's erstwhile friends have become his greatest foes as he struggles to hold on to the party he once described as "one party, one heart." The situation was highlighted by recent Knesset faction meetings where a rigid seating arrangement has emerged. The head of the table has become laden with Peretz loyalists, while the newly-formed Labor "rebel quintet" has edged closer to the door, causing many to wonder whether they are planning to exit the party altogether. The chairman himself, formerly the first to arrive and last to leave the Labor gatherings, now enters, surrounded by his posse of bodyguards from the defense establishment, and sits stiffly in his seat beneath the massive portrait of Yitzhak Rabin. The upheaval that changed the face of Israeli politics over the last six months affected the nation's oldest party in a number of fundamental ways. Once the party of the old Israeli establishment, the stereotypical Labor voter tended to be a middle-aged Ashkenazi living in a well-to-do neighborhood or an established kibbutz. Labor hungered after the blue-collar development towns and inner-city constituencies, but those voters were traditionally attracted by the Likud underdog image. The last elections said goodbye to all that. Peretz was the first Labor leader to break through the "ghetto walls," attracting voters who would never have dreamed of voting for the party but who, this time, deserted Likud in droves. The problem was that he lost the same number of traditional Labor voters to Kadima. Now that the elections are over, Peretz is trying to cast his party members in the same mold of the constituency they have gained, and in the process set in motion the greatest shakeup the party has seen since it lost power in 1977. The master plan he hatched together with new ally and party secretary-general Eitan Cabel, was designed to achieve a rapid takeover of the party organization immediately after the elections. He took a step in that direction by firing Eldad Yaniv, Labor's long-time legal counsel. Yaniv had crossed swords with Peretz when he moved to strike thousands of new members - most of them Peretz loyalists - from the party's list after it was discovered that those members had been signed in a suspicious manner. Rumors also began to circulate that the chairman was planning a major shakeup by replacing many of the party's local branch leaders with younger Peretz supporters. The changes sparked an immediate reaction within the party's old guard, and a "rebel quintet" was formed by MKs Colette Avital, Danny Yatom, Matan Vilna'i, Avishay Braverman and Ami Ayalon. Peretz and Cabel's aides call them "three generals, a professor and a diplomat." While the group's members insisted they had joined together to "return the party to the people," their first objective was clearly the removal of Eitan, Peretz's point man. The group has also raised objections over the manner in which local membership drives have been conducted, and the management of the party's funds. "They cripple Eitan [Cabel] and they cut off Peretz from really making the party his own," said a veteran party official. "They are trying to cut him off before he gets too powerful, before he becomes another [Ehud] Barak." Former party leader Barak, meanwhile, has remained in the party's wings. During his term, he appointed many central committee members who remain loyal to him and continue to operate on his behalf. All these problems have recently come to a head for Peretz, who has been forced to deal with insurgencies rather than come to grips with the intricacies of his new job as defense minister. "This could not have come at a worse time for Peretz," said a Labor Party MK. "He needs calm, he needs to prove himself as a steady, reliable leader. Instead he can't even control his own party."