The public can rightfully expect Labor to use what power it has to be part of the solution.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
The Labor Party, in this day and age, presents a paradox. On the one hand, after the split within the Likud Party and the rise of Kadima, Labor looks and seems to operate like the last of the classic national ruling parties, with the full array of candidates, activists and voters. On the other, it holds only 19 Knesset seats, is expected to shrink further, and is not considered to be a real contender to lead the country in the near future.
The central issue in the party's leadership election today has become whether Labor's new chairman - given the slim chances that Amir Peretz will be reelected - will pull the party out of the government. Ehud Barak, though accused of waffling on the question, is expected to keep Labor in and serve as Ehud Olmert's defense minister, at least until the remainder of the Winograd Report is submitted later this year. His main rival, Ami Ayalon, continues to claim that he will not serve under Olmert, but that he will engineer Olmert's replacement, in order to ensure that the Kadima-Labor government does not fall.
What tends to become lost in all this maneuvering is what the public wants: a government that can lead the country to recovery from the triple blow of corruption scandals, failed leadership and growing external threats. The combination of rot and paralysis is debilitating at any time, but seems particularly dangerous now, when major national decisions need to be taken and the people need to have confidence that their military-political leadership is more than just barely functioning.
Given Labor's present state, no one expects the party to single-handedly turn matters around. But the public can rightfully expect that Labor use what power it has to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Accordingly, the election is being fought on the right question. Even if Labor cannot, by itself, topple the government, it must decide whether it is propping up the coalition or helping to bring about national recovery.
Even Ayalon, though he seems to be more aggressive on the need for Olmert to go, is going along with the sense within his party that elections must be avoided at all costs. Perhaps this is understandable, both from the point of view of reflecting the party membership and the desire not to lose seats and usher the Likud into power. But it also may be shortsighted, even from the Labor Party's political perspective.
In the end, the public is likely to judge Labor on whether it, like Olmert and Kadima, held on to its ministerial and Knesset seats regardless of the public's will, or whether it had the courage and conviction to face the voters' verdict.
No party likes to languish in the opposition, but being in the government can, at times, be politically more damaging. If Labor today senses that it needs time and energy to restore itself to the level of a ruling party in the public eye, it is far from clear that this is better done in the government - even under a different Kadima leader - than in the opposition.
After all, the Peretz episode - in which a "social" leader became ensconced in the Defense Ministry - has left Labor without a coherent agenda. Where would Labor lead the nation, in the economic, military and diplomatic spheres, if it could?
It is hard to see how Labor can escape its internal paralysis without leaving a government of national paralysis. The challenge for Labor's next chief is to show that he can not just maneuver and do well at the polls, but can admit mistakes and forge a new vision for the party that gives the public a reason to turn to it to govern.
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