The war inside Labor

Now it’s all out in the open. The war inside Labor pits the party’s generals versus its social activists over whether to enter Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. And in war, the generals play dirty.

Leading the fight to join a Netanyahu government “for the good of the
country” are former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Lt.-Gen. (Res.) Ehud
Barak, Deputy Defense Minister Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Matan Vilnai, and former
Defense Minister Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Binyamin [Fuad] Ben Eliezer.
Strengthening this camp with some serious social welfare credentials is
Histadrut strongman Ofer Eini, a powerful force inside Labor. Agriculture
Minister Shalom Simhon carries the moshavim sector. Barak’s camp believes it
is in the country’s interests to have Labor join Netanyahu so that his
government can better deal with the crucial security and economic challenges
that lie ahead. Barak does not want to languish in the opposition,
especially if Kadima’s Tzipi Livni is the leader of the opposition.

Opposing Barak is the camp trying to move Labor into the opposition, to
re-brand the Labor party as a serious alternative to the Likud, fight for
social issues and call for peace, while moving away from its current image
as a ‘hanger-on” to any ruling party. In this camp are social flag-bearers
Shelly Yechimovich, Ofir Paz-Pines, and Daniel Ben-Simon, who are joined by
Labor Secretary-General MK Eitan Cabel, former Defense Minister Amir Peretz,
who is not considered a security man, as well as Education Minister Yuli
Tamir and Raleb Majadele.

Both camps will try convincing Labor’s 1,460 central committee delegates to
vote in their favor at next week’s convention on the question of joining
Bibi’s government. Unofficial numbers published in the Hebrew press have the
Barak camp gaining 475 votes, with the opposing camp garnering 585; while
some 400 delegates are currently undecided. But Labor officials from both
sides of the divide believe that Barak’s camp is stronger than the numbers
published recently in the press.

While numerically stronger in the Knesset faction, the ‘social camp’ has
slightly less support on the ground, according to activists, and is less
solidified around a single leader. Yechimovich and Pines-Paz are leading the
charge, with Peretz working quietly behind the scenes. It is a relatively
weak leadership facing a strong lineup of defense and social powerhouses.
Eini is considered the party’s top social flag bearer, more than
Yechimovich, Pines-Paz, and Peretz put together. Eini is the man visiting
bankrupt factories in the periphery every day, working out deals with
creditors and finding new owners to take over failed businesses, so that
factory workers won’t lose their jobs. Eini is the man Netanyahu is calling
for advice on welfare and employment issues.

MKs Avishai Braverman and Orit Noked say in the same breath that they want
to go into the opposition, but are also keen to hear what Netanyahu has to
offer, i.e. they are very much open to being swayed. Furthermore, while
Ben-Simon has gone on record saying he is opposed to joining Netanyahu’s
government, he has also said he will accept any verdict reached by the
central committee.

The key player may prove to be Social Affairs Minister Yitzhak Herzog, and
Herzog is in a real dilemma. As a successful minister, and a powerful member
of Labor with many supporters, he sees himself as a potential leader of the
party. If he sides with current chairman Barak and enters Nentayahu’s
government, he will keep his ministerial seat but lose the support of up to
half the party, and could find himself blamed, together with Barak, for
Labor’s gradual disintegration within a right wing government, thereby
harming his future leadership chances. But if he chooses to stay out he will
lose his ministerial position, Barak may split the party, taking four, five
or more MKs with him, and Herzog will face the prospect of a leadership
battle against Yechimovich, Pines-Paz and Peretz for a party with a paltry
seven or so Knesset seats, the fifth largest party.

As things stand, Herzog believes he can take over the mantle of leadership
from Barak at the next Labor primaries. After this week’s split, and next
week’s possible vote, Barak can never hope to once again rule over a united
Labor; his time at the helm ends with this last bid to retain the Defense
Ministry.

If Noked [kibbutzim sector] joins Barak, and together with Simhon’s
moshavim, the large Tel-Aviv district and the Histadrut all decide to
support Barak, then there is a good chance that Herzog will join them,
banking on their support for a future leadership bid.

If Barak manages to overcome the legal hurdle placed before him by Labor’s
legal adviser [a Cabel associate] and hold a vote on Tuesday, party
officials believe his proposal will carry the day. Right now the momentum is
with Barak’s camp, with Ben Eliezer and Eini working feverishly to convince
their loyal “divisions” to back their stand. If it were up to these two,
they would hold the convention today. If the various sectors join Barak’s
bid, and just a few of Fuad’s Arabs do likewise, there might be just enough
votes to approve Barak’s proposal to enter Netanyahu’s government.

Netanyahu has two main issues he will face during his term: Iran and the economic crisis. For Iran he needs Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry, and for the economic crisis he needs Ofer Eini – to help stem the tide of factories going out of business and firing people.

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