Last weekend Ehud Barak's people invaded the roads, putting up the first placards of his campaign: "Bold leadership for Labor. Ehud Barak."
Boldness. This what Barak is running on this time. Just as I brought you out of Lebanon, he is telling his voters, I will bring you out of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The implicit message is: My rivals are bunny rabbits who would rather cozy up to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's warm bosom than face him with a clear, sharp and focused alternative. Bunny rabbits, who instead of being ready to battle in the party central committee over the date of the primaries for the chairmanship race, will tomorrow propose to the members of the Labor bureau that they cancel the debate scheduled for the end of this month.
Parallel to getting the signs up, Barak dispatched a letter to the approximately 230 members of the bureau, urging them not to vote in favor of the cancellation tomorrow. "We must prefer a bureau that will convene and decide, contrary to the position held by some of us, against an embarrassing process of canceling a discussion that hundreds of members have asked to hold. Only if we respect our internal democracy, will the public respect us," he wrote.
If the discussion is cancelled, Barak's plans will be messed up. He wanted to deliver his comeback speech at the central committee meeting, to sweep up the members in an oppositionist speech like those from days of yore, against the other thesis that will be presented at the meeting: entering a unity government. If the central committee meeting is cancelled, he will have to find will have to find a different stage.
Despite the great importance he attributes to the meeting, it is not certain that Barak will be there in order to persuade the members of the justice of his way. If Barak does not show up, his people will represent him: Knesset members Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, Shalom Simhon and Danny Yatom. Barak, then, is carrying on with his trips abroad, to the disgruntlement of some of his backers. He needs to travel to America less, to make his presence felt more here and to talk with the members, says a source close to him. His situation is not good. Not good at all. He faces an uphill battle.
In part, Barak has internalized this message. On Thursday, he was supposed to have participated in the dedication of his friend Bill Clinton's library, in Arkansas. At the last minute, he decided to remain in Israel, which did not prevent Clinton from thanking, in his speech, "Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin's children, Ehud Barak" and the current foreign minister of Israel for being present. While Clinton was thanking Barak for his presence at the ceremony, Barak was sitting in an office in Tel Aviv with another group of party activists.
In his letter to the party bureau members, Barak sets out the general lines of his campaign: an expression of regret ("I believe that I will be able to draw conclusions and learn"), a commitment to remain in the system ("I am returning to a long journey, a marathon - not a sprint") and his well-known principles: complete and not partial disengagement, "a modern social-economic policy that is based on values of social justice and a humane approach in the spirit of the Jewish heritage of justice and mercy," "education" and "strict concern for the rule of law."
In another passage in the letter he preaches a return by the Labor Party to its roots "in the spirit of the path taken by David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katzenelson." More than once Barak has compared himself to Yitzhak Rabin. Now he is taking another step back. Berl? Ben-Gurion? One person in the Labor Party said on the weekend that insofar as he knows, the comparison to Ben-Gurion was born only out of the childish desire to annoy Shimon Peres.
As these lines are being written, the voting at the Likud Central Committee is just beginning. If nothing unexpected happened last night, this morning it is already known who the heads of the central committee, the secretariat and the bureau are. Connected to this or not, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have to decide where he is heading: to continued contacts with United Torah Judaism on support for the budget and the government; to a government with Labor despite the strong opposition within his own party; or to calling for early elections, one way or another, perhaps by setting an agreed-upon date with Labor. Or - and this too is a possibility - not to do anything. To carry on as he has been, with his minority government, in the hope that Labor will not dare topple him as long as he is advancing the disengagement.
From his recent statements, which have been so very moderate, it is possible to conclude that he is already thinking about elections, but it is not sure that he will be the head of the Likud. In the battle for registering dues-paying party members, who elect the chairman of the Likud, Sharon has an advantage over Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (about 10 percent, according to sources in the Likud who checked this last week). This is an advantage that Netanyahu, if he does his work right, can erase. The question of whether Netanyahu is able to do his work right is a different question altogether.
In the middle of last week one of the seven candidates for head of Likud institutions conducted a telephone survey among central committee members in which he wanted to check the situation in two of the three races: for head of the central committee and head of the bureau, as well as other matters.
The survey predicted that in the three-way race for head of the secretariat, Minister Yisrael Katz would win 242 votes. MK Michael Ratzon would win 126 votes. MK Avraham Hirschson would 98 votes. The result here is unambiguous: a sweeping victory for Katz. In the race between Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and MK Uzi Landau for head of the central committee, Hanegbi would win 302 votes. Uzi Landau would win 214.
What else did the survey show? There would be 351 members against the disengagement, and 271 in favor. It would have been possible to expect a larger difference, in favor of the opponents.
Another question that was examined: Sharon versus Benjamin Netanyahu. There were 205 members in favor of Sharon, and 205 members in favor of Netanyahu. A tie. Of course this does not reflect anything, as the race between Sharon and Netanyahu, if there is one, will be conducted among the registered party members, and not in the central committee. This shows the extent to which the central committee, which is the senior and sovereign body, is cut of from Likud voters, who in the Haaretz-Dialog survey that was published at the weekend gave Sharon a huge lead over Netanyahu.
The Haaretz-Dialog survey under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs that was conducted among the general public in the middle of last week (whose main findings were published on Friday) underlined the broad popularity of the two elderly politicians: Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. Both of them effortlessly defeat their younger rivals.
A deeper look into the survey reveals that Peres and Sharon also win support among younger voters. In reply to the question: "Of the figures in the Labor Party, who is the candidate best suited to serve as prime minister?" Peres wins the support of about 35 percent of voters aged 18 to 42. Ehud Barak is supported by only 15 percent of them and MK Matan Vilnai by about 7 percent. Among voters aged 25 to 34, Peres gets 32 percent and Barak 11 percent.
Sharon's move toward the center - and even toward the left - is particularly evident in the distribution of the answers to the question: "Who among the candidates in the Likud is most suited to serve as prime minister?" About 52 percent of Labor voters say Sharon. Fifty percent of Shinui voters say Sharon. Sixty-two percent of Meretz voters also say Sharon, but in the Likud only 43 percent say Sharon. The explanation is simple: Whereas in the Likud Netanyahu is still considered the heir even if he has weakened considerably in recent weeks, in the center and on the left, there is no alternative at all to Sharon. Even Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who more than any other of the candidates in the Likud has expressed positions of the left, is outdistanced by Sharon.
In the area of bizarre answers, two examples: To the question of who among the figures in the Likud is most suited to be prime minister, Education, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat earns minuscule support, between 0 percent among Labor voters to 3.7 percent in the ultra-Orthodox parties. She wins the highest support, 9.4 percent, among voters for the Arab parties.
To the question "Do you believe that Ehud Barak has changed, as he says?" 30 percent of Labor voters replied in the affirmative, as did 19 percent of Shinui voters, 12.8 percent in the Likud and 18 percent of Meretz voters. And where did Barak's ostensible change win the highest degree of trust? Again, among the Arabs. Yes, we believe him! say 40.6 percent of them.
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