In the Knesset building, right near the entrance to the plenum hall, there is a huge glass door. It separates the open, public area from the more exclusive one. On Sunday evening Labor-One Nation MK Amir Peretz, accompanied by some aides, strode towards the plenum. When he came to the barrier he was stopped, almost brutally, by one of the ushers, who closed the door. What happened, asked Peretz. The prime minister is on his way, said the usher. Wait.
Peretz did not even try to argue. His face grew cold. For a long moment he stood there pensively. No doubt he was thinking about his chances of winning in the Labor election for party chairman, which at that moment, 24 hours before MK Matan Vilnai resigned from the race, looked slim. No doubt he said to himself that no impertinent usher would have slammed the door in the face of Vice Premier Shimon Peres or even MK Matan Vilnai, and certainly not Ehud Barak.
The Labor Party woke up yesterday to a complex morning. To say the least. For 40 percent of its members, the morning was the dawn of a new day. A historic, dramatic, earthshaking turnaround. For those who voted for Peretz, the outcome yesterday before dawn breathed life into an expiring body, a moment before its death was certified. Their cries of rejoicing shook the meeting hall in Labor Party House in the Hatikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Such cries of joy had not resounded there since Amram Mitzna deposed Benjamin Ben-Eliezer from the leadership. On the day he was elected, Mitzna, too, was considered a new breed of leader: young, an outsider, promising. He, too, was considered a candidate with a "civil" agenda, despite his military past. "The man who lit the tribe's bonfires," the newspapers called him in November 2002, exactly three years ago.
For those who did not vote for Peretz, among them all the Labor Party government ministers and most of its Knesset members, the morning was traumatic. There were those who compared it to the shock of losing to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Then, too, Peres and his party went to bed at night with a lead of 1 percent and woke up to a lag of 1 percent. The curse of Shimon. It is amazing the extent to which the marks of that loss and the loss in the race for the presidency in the summer of 2000 repeated themselves this time.
The morning after the 1996 elections, it was related how on election day Peres came to his headquarters, saw the mess, the desolation, the abandonment and realized there was a problem. He sat down at the phones and tried to rescue something. This is exactly, but exactly, what happened on Wednesday. At 4 in the afternoon he arrived, together with his new supporter Vilnai, at the headquarters of the Beeper company in Tel Aviv, which served as the headquarters for "energizing" his voters. The calculations that were shown to him showed clearly that Peretz's organization was far more effective than his and that in order to win he would have to get more voters to come out and vote. And again, there was no one to talk to. The campaign heads were busy, or had gone out to eat, or their mobile phones were busy.
Of the approximately 65,000 voters, 42 percent supported Peretz and 57 percent voted against him. This obligates him to a bit of modesty. Anyone who listened yesterday to the radio programs and listened to his fans and supporters might have thought that Peretz had been elected prime minister by the votes of the nation. He was elected by a well-oiled mechanism, a problematic voter registration drive and thanks to the chronic impotence of the Peres camp.
In a few months' time he will have to do battle with the Likud headed by Sharon or by Netanyahu, and maybe with a new right-center party headed by Sharon. This will be his greatest and in fact his only test. The expectation from him will be to increase Labor's power by at least 20 percent, to 25 Knesset seats. If he fails at that, he will be deposed within a few months, a year at most. In these matters, Labor is an orderly party. It is incapable of organizing general elections. It is incapable of winning. But deposal procedures are carried out there scrupulously and by the book.
The masses want a changeUnlike Mitzna, Peretz is able to stir real enthusiasm around him. He is a leader from birth, a man who sweeps masses after him, a man who arouses hopes. His great ideological opponent, Labor MK Avraham "Beiga" Shochat, said of him in these pages a week ago that as far as personal leadership goes, he is the person closest to Yitzhak Rabin. Of all the Labor Party candidates, those who dropped out and those who persisted, Peretz is the only one who has shaheeds ?(martyrs?) who are prepared to kill themselves for him in the elections as well.
In this election campaign he succeeded in uniting around him an extraordinary band of people who believe in him wholeheartedly: industrialist Benny Gaon, high-tech millionaire Ofer Kornfeld and the head of the Labor Party academic forum Guy Spiegelman, who is also in high-tech. His social economic line, which is extremely opposed to Netanyahu's, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert's or Shochat's, should have distanced them from him. Nevertheless, they went with him.
Three years ago Peretz ran on the same agenda, with the same uncompromising social democratic platform. He won three seats in the Knesset. The poor did not go with him. They preferred the Likud that was hitting them hard year after year, term after term. Ostensibly the poor, the unemployed, the pensioners, the single mothers and the new immigrants did not have and do not have a more suitable, more appropriate leader than Peretz. He comes from an immigrant transit camp, lives in a southern development town, looks like them and talks like them.
Will they go with him now, when he is heading the Labor Party they hate? Amir Peretz has no doubt. He compares yesterday's turnaround to that of 1997, when the masses got fed up with Labor and the Alignment and went with Menachem Begin. In his opinion, the conditions for this ripened over the past three years. The masses want a change, he says, and he is the only one who is capable of delivering the goods.
At the moment, the reality contradicts his view. All the public opinion surveys that were held on the eve of his election showed that among Labor voters, he earned the lowest level of support among all the candidates ? in direct contrast to his situation among the registered party members, whom he recruited for the party. During the past two days we have seen what these surveys are worth. Peretz believes that from the moment of his election he will bring about a change in public opinion about him. But before he turns to the Likud and Shas voters, he will have to connect the traditional Labor Party voters to him, who see him as an alien element. Not one of them. If they don't go with him, he will not make it.
Sharon won't need PeresThe general elections are a matter of a few months. March, April at the latest. Even if Peretz does not manage to drag the Labor ministers and deputy ministers out of the government during the coming weeks, the coalition will not survive the shock the political world has experienced. It is doubtful that the budget will be approved and it is doubtful that it will be brought to a vote unless Sharon, that indefatigable survivor, manages to recruit a majority for himself from within the opposition.Peretz's election as leader of the Labor Party and the difficulties that Sharon is facing in the Likud could serve as a catalyst for building a new political map, the one that everyone has been talking about.
Theoretically, there is scope here for three parties that precisely define the current Israeli mood: A leftist peace policy and economic party headed by Amir Peretz ?(henceforth: New Labor?), a rightist peace policy and economic party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu ?(henceforth: the Likud?) and a centrist peace policy and economic party headed by Ariel Sharon ?(henceforth: no name yet?).
On the eve of the Labor elections, one of the people closest to Peres said to him: If you lose this time too, go with Sharon. Both of you are in your last term, free and independent and you can do great things together. The question, as always, is what Sharon will do and this question will get an answer quite soon. If he decides to leave the Likud and set up a new party, it is not certain that he will want Peres beside him. Shimon brings bad luck. If Sharon succeeds in bringing to this party the moderate ministers in the Likud - Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson and their friends, along with some attractive figure from outside - he will not need Peres. Maybe room will be found there for Minister Without Portfolio Haim Ramon ?(Labor?), who was in bed yesterday with a high fever and a bad case of flu, and another figure or two from the Labor Party and its environs.
Peretz, as chairman of the Labor Party, affords this party, which in recent years has become Sharon's cheerleading squad, a clearer identity than any other candidate. This is also to the good.
They were skepticalThe party members ignored Mitzna. They scorned Fuad ?(Ben-Eliezer?). Peretz is impossible to scorn and certainly impossible to ignore. In the One Nation party he was the lone ruler. In the Histadrut labor federation he did as he pleased. This is over. In the coming weeks Peretz is about to discover that he is only the first among equals. There are quite a few in the arena who will see themselves as more equal than him. They will embitter his life the way only they can embitter lives. Many of them are saying of Peretz that he has stolen the party from them, that he has done a hostile takeover of it.
On Monday afternoon, in the Knesset buffet, Shimon Peres, Communications Minister Dalia Itzik and former prime minister Ehud Barak all sat around one table. This was, as noted, one day after Vilnai had dropped out of the race. The public opinion polls that were published the following day in the two mass circulation dailies gave Peres a majority of 11 to 19 percent over Peretz. Another survey that was published that same evening on one of the television channels gave Peres an advantage of 28 percent.Despite Vilnai's withdrawal, the three, like a Chamber Quintet sketch, were skeptical. Barak was the most skeptical of all. At length he explained to Peres why he was incapable of winning. Why everything depends on organization, on the fighting spirit, on transportation, on the voters' enthusiasm. Peres' face went gray.
Itzik, who worried about his health ?(for a decade now she has been there at his side at his difficult moments, at all his defeats?), asked Barak to stop it. She thought that Barak was just harassing him because of that matter of the defense portfolio that had been promised to Vilnai. But afterwards, on the side, she too expressed great doubt as to whether Peres was capable of winning. "Why should my mother go out to vote for Peres?" she asked rhetorically. "Why is this important to her?"
The people around the table ?(who had been joined in the meantime by Environment Minister Shalom Simhon?) wagered on the outcome. Simhon predicted 60 percent for Peres, 30 percent for Peretz and 10 percent for Fuad. Forty-plus for Shimon, 40-plus for Amir and 15 percent for Fuad, said Barak.
At the entrance to the Knesset building Vilnai, the former defense minister-designate met David Libai, the former justice minister and current top lawyer, who was conversing with someone. Libai and his interlocutor shared with Vilnai the assessment that even after the resignation Peres could still lose. "Ah, there's no doubt," said Vilnai innocently. Later he talked with two journalists. They reminded him of what he had said about Peres on the eve of his withdrawal from the race. "What did I say?" asked Vilnai, finding it difficult to remember. You said that Peres is the Likud's dream. "Nu, and isn't that so?" replied Vilnai.
Yesterday Vilnai hastened to express his support for Peretz. He wants to be the one to lead the conciliatory, unifying line. The primaries for determining the Labor list of candidates for the elections to the 17th Knesset will be held soon. Vilnai, Ehud Barak, Dalia Itzik and others are candidates for elimination. If all of Amir's voters who participated on Wednesday in the election procedure come to vote in the primaries for Knesset members, they will determine how the new list looks. It will not be the current list. Beiga Shochat has resigned in time from the Knesset.
Almost a Greek tragedyWhat is it about him, this man? What is the curse that hovers over his head bringing defeat after defeat, humiliation after humiliation. Why is he incapable of winning, even when all the surveys predict a sweeping victory for him, when all the chances are in his favor, when all the candidates drop out for his sake. Even without sliding into exaggerated dramatization, it is impossible to ignore the cruel irony: On Wednesday Peres lost to the man he had carried in his hands into the Labor Party, contrary to the opinion of most of his friends who warned him of what was awaiting him. This is almost a Greek tragedy.
Only a year ago Amir Peretz and his One Nation party were about to crash, because the percentage of votes necessary for winning a seat in the Knesset was increased. Peres, who was worried about Ehud Barak, thought that he had found the formula to stop Barak in the shape of Peretz and his colleagues. He forced on his colleagues the merger between the two parties and all the rest was inscribed yesterday in the minutes of the Labor Party elections committee.
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