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Labor Party chairman MK Amir Peretz bid farewell this week to the bullet-proof car he had as opposition head. For more than two months he held the title, which also included a tight belt of bodyguards, until Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu inherited it, and the car, on Monday. He was very glad to take leave of the heavy vehicle with the noisy motor, which gave him a headache. Maybe someone else's head will ache now.

Without the car and without the security guards who hemmed him in like a fortified wall, and after the primaries that produced a likable list for him, Peretz feels his day has rolled around. That this is the turning point he has been expecting for many long weeks now. Every time it appeared to him he had got there, something happened and he tumbled backwards, like Sisyphus on the mountain slope.

First, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split the Likud and started a new party, then MK Shimon Peres quit Labor, then the Iranian threat cropped up, then Sharon fell ill, and recovered, and fell ill again. But now it is all behind him. The forces are in battle order, the weapons are aimed and calibrated, his wrecked headquarters are being rebuilt and he is prepared to tackle the voter with his economic and social agenda but also with unambiguous statements on diplomatic and security issues. And if necessary - even with suits and ties.

He has no feelings of inferiority facing Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the diplomatic arena. He was the first who thought it necessary to allow voting in East Jerusalem, way before Olmert. He called for the evacuation of the illegal outposts way before Olmert "declared war" on them on Wednesday. And he talked about a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians way before Olmert did this week at the President's Residence. Yes, he still believes in a permanent status agreement, and he does not accept the thesis that there is "no partner," but he is aware time is working against him.

Therefore, as was published this week in the daily Maariv, he is considering the adoption of the idea of disengagement. But he has not relinquished the economic and social issues and the raising of the minimum wage to $1,000, even though Prof. Avishay Braverman contradicted him in an interview to the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. He disagreed with me, said Peretz this week in closed circles, but I'm the one who sets policy. And in order to anchor this matter, he will commit himself publicly to increasing the minimum wage at the Labor conventions, even if the respected professor from Be'er Sheva thinks it is necessary to do this gradually and not in all branches of the economy.

Playing with the big boys

On Sunday he will appear before the members of the convention and set forth to them the main points of his policy platform. Several days later, at the Herzliya Conference, on the big boys' playing field, he will go into it more deeply and expand upon it, and the following day he will fly to Athens for the meeting of the Socialist International.

Yesterday he was still deep in the Ehud Barak issues. Nearly all of his close associates are saying to him: Bring in Barak. Promise him a senior portfolio in the government, even a place on the list, just so he will not cause damage from outside. On the one hand, Peretz is aware that with Barak his team will look more impressive, weightier. On the other hand, he cannot overcome the loathing he feels for him. To him, Barak belongs to the category of the shadows, the ghosts and the goblins that roam the political map, haunting and annoying their rivals. He is not entirely certain what is preferable: to clasp Barak's hand on Sunday at the convention, or to strike him and butt him and fight him as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did for many years with Netanyahu.

Sometimes, when it comes to a person whom the public does not love, public quarrelling affords greater yields than cooperation.

Peretz is talking about victory; about 30 Knesset seats that will make him prime minister. He has to talk that way. But senior people in his party who are appearing at parlor meetings are urging people to vote for Labor so that it will have the power to influence Olmert's government. Peretz's close associates are talking about the problems he is facing: The Russian vote does not recognize him at all and without the Russians, the immigrants from the Confederation of Independent States, it is impossible to win elections in Israel.

A second problem, which is cropping up in the in-depth public opinion polls that are being conducted for Peretz: His electoral blanket is too short. If he picks up votes in the peripheral development towns, he loses votes from the Ashkenazim and the kibbutz movement. If he goes for north Tel Aviv, he will be beaten in his natural bastion, at home. And the third problem: Ariel Sharon's condition. As long as Sharon is in critical condition, but with the hope of an improvement, the Labor voters who have gone over to Kadima will be in no hurry to return home, so as not to look like insensitive, unfeeling traitors.

Yet despite everything, we do have a chance among the Russians, says Peretz. His advisers have prepared a plan for him that is supposed to bring three Knesset seats from the Russian street. The plan talks about a pension for every elderly person, improvement in education and dealing with the manpower companies. The moment they believe we are able to get things done, Peretz thinks, they will vote for us.

He hopes to recruit four more Knesset seats from the Arab sector, and three from Kadima. The day will come, he believes, when those who quit Labor will wake up from the illusion of Kadima. Maybe they will be disgusted when they see Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon at Olmert's side, under the picture of Sharon. Seven Knesset seats have moved from Labor to Kadima; Peretz will be happy with three.

There are those who are saying he is dreaming. When you speak to him he looks like someone in a trance. Everything that is inconvenient, he dismisses. His lack of experience? Who says? His lack of suitability for the position of prime minister? Where is that written? What difference does it make? The influence of the state of Sharon's health on the voters' emotions? In a little while, you'll see, it will in fact become a burden on Olmert's shoulders.

Three potential PMs

Three potential prime ministers are surrounding Peretz in the first quintet on the list that was chosen this week by 65,000 registered Labor Party members. MK Ophir Pines-Paz, Avishay Braverman and Ami Ayalon. Two more potential prime ministers - MK Matan Vilnai and MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - have been edged aside and have in effect stopped being an alternative.

When Peretz stood on the stage at Beit Berl on Wednesday morning and looked around him, he saw his successors. The Labor Party constitution stipulates that if the party's candidate does not form the government, additional primaries must be held within 14 months of election day.

That means, at some point between March and May 2007, the Labor Party polling stations will open again and the contenders will be Peretz and two or three of the people named above, unless Peretz brings in a respectable number of Knesset seats, 25 or more, that will enable him to hand out good portfolios to his colleagues in Olmert's government, in return for industrial quiet on their part until the 2010 elections.

Twenty-five Knesset seats for Labor equal seven or eight portfolios in the government. The question is which senior portfolio will be given to Labor, that is, to Peretz. It is hard to see him as foreign minister or defense minister. It is easier to see him as finance minister. This also lines up with his agenda. Olmert, if he forms the next government, could offer the treasury to Labor and leave Tzipi Livni as foreign minister and Shaul Mofaz as defense minister.

The budget of the Likud campaign headquarters has been drawn up on the working assumption of 20 Knesset seats for the party in the coming elections. Any seat above 20 will be welcomed. The public sees the Likud as a party of the right, not the center-right, despite what Netanyahu is saying and despite the fact that six of the heavy rebels, the hilltop youth of the rebels, were deposed from the list. Until the public is convinced that the Likud is a pragmatic, balanced and responsible party, even 20 Knesset seats will be considered an achievement.

Likud leaps

According to the Haaretz-Channel 10 News public opinion poll, the findings of which are published on today's A section news pages, the Likud leaps ahead by four Knesset seats, from 13 to 17. But most of these come from former Likud voters and the parties of the right. Voters for center parties are not seeing the Likud as an option. This is not surprising, considering the Likud list: Out of the 18 in the top slots, nine are rebels (Natan Sharansky and MKs Leah Ness, Daniel Benlulu, Yuli Edelstein, Uzi Landau, Haim Katz, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon and Naomi Blumenthal), two are ideological rightists (MK Gideon Sa'ar and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin) and four are former ministers firmly planted in the right and who voted against the disengagement (Netanyahu and MKS Danny Naveh, Yisrael Katz and Limor Livnat). Only three (MKs Silvan Shalom, Yuval Steinitz and Michael Eitan) supported the disengagement.

Any future prime minister, Olmert or Peretz, needs to take this factor into account when he comes to forming a coalition. If the Likud members voted against every move, every bit of progress and every shift, whether it was the road map or the disengagement plan, when they were members of the ruling party - how will they act as part of a coalition headed by a rival party? What reason will they have to support further unilateral steps or a broader plan when Ehud Olmert leads them? And what reason does Olmert have to bring a faction of 20 Knesset members into a coalition and give it five portfolios, when it is clear that only three out of its five government members will support diplomatic moves?

Therefore, the way it looks now, the Likud is going to return to the opposition benches during the next term after five sweet years in power. The next coalition will consist of Kadima and Labor, which according to today's public opinion polls still hold a combined total of about 60 Knesset seats. Together with the ultra-Orthodox parties, the next coalition will consist of 75 Knesset seats and Meretz will support diplomatic progress from outside, or even from inside, as part of the coalition.

It is true the elections are still two months away, but a look into the archive reveals that in the parallel period three years ago, two months before the 2003 elections, the Haaretz poll (by the Dialog company under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs) predicted 41 Knesset seats for the Likud and 20 for Labor. A bit more than two months after that, the Likud won 38 Knesset seats and Labor 19.