29 May 2007

28 May 2007 - Labor's fateful choice

At this moment, Israel’s Labor Party is holding an election for its new leader. The choice is between former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in 2000-1 offered the Palestinians the most sweeping concessions ever made by an Israeli leader, and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, who co-authored a peace plan with Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh. It is a close race, with Ayalon narrowly leading the polls.

Today’s Ha’aretz features an article endorsing Ayalon, citing Barak’s perceived weaknesses and touting “character” over “experience.” I have limited knowledge of both men, but I met Ayalon last December, and it seemed he was just as headstrong as Barak is perceived to be. He seemed to think that negotiations could be ordered to take effect, just as Barak once seemed to think he could dictate an agreement.

Both men have a strong military background, which increases their appeal as candidates from the left. But both seem to have the same lack of skill in marshaling consensus around vulnerable, if not unpopular, viewpoints. This is a severe weakness, since whoever wins will have to challenge Bibi Netanyahu, who is reclaiming popularity at the polls and has a simple message voters understand: no!

After the election, the new Labor leader will have to decide the fate of the party within Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led coalition government. Barak has hinted that, contrary to expectations that he would rescue Olmert by taking over as defense minister, he would pull the party out, causing the government to fall and forcing new elections. But given Likud’s resurgence, this might not be Labor’s best option.

Staying in the government, however, has its own risks, and it might be best at this time of crisis to form a viable opposition rather than playing a secondary role in a government that has already fumbled away the confidence of the public. Regardless, sooner or later, Israel will face an Ayalon-Netanyahu contest, or Barak-Netanyahu II (Barak won easily in 1999, but this time the odds seem to be against him).

By the time this blog is posted, the election may be over. It is only an internal party election among the members of Israel’s second- or third-largest political force. But it may direct the future of the country and its negotiations with the Palestinians. Both candidates represent a commitment to peace; both have outstanding military records. But will either of them capture the imagination of the Israeli public?

UPDATE: The election produced a runoff, to be held in two weeks, between Barak and Ayalon. Interestingly, Barak finished first, with 34.2 percent of the vote, while Ayalon came second, with 31.7 percent. But there’s no way of knowing how the remainder will break down between the two candidates. Each candidate must now woo the supporters of Amir Peretz, who came third on a social welfare platform.

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