Labor Hopefuls Court the Arab Vote

Legend has it that Iyad Mansur of Tira has registered 5,000 Labor members in the past two months. He denies it. Being responsible for so many registrations has fishy implications. But activists from the predominantly Arab "Triangle" region near Afula have been making pilgrimages to his place of work at Beit Berl. He has a reputation for being able to take care of business, he knows a lot of people. Now he's working for Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Fuad).

"For years I was a [Shimon] Peres man. He'll be surprised to learn I switched to Fuad. Fuad is the Arab sector's new hope, he's the one who can help us. Labor has had enough Ashkenazi leaders," he says in a speech worthy of seasoned politicians. He repeats these words when he goes to register new members. He also operates a network of party activists. He has a representative, or friend, or acquaintance, in every community in the region.

Mansur insists he has registered only some 100 members. "But my friends registered 5,000," he says, completely seriously. The exact figures are not that important, but the more you register, the higher your status. The figures will matter on election day, when all that counts is who takes first place. Arab votes could prove pivotal, at least in the second round, since the Arab precinct is the largest in the party - some 25,000 of the 120,000 members.

Ben-Eliezer is considered one of two strong candidates in the precinct, the other being Amir Peretz. Peres still has a traditional constituency intact. Minister without Portfolio Matan Vilnai is also trying to establish a power base. What about Ehud Barak? Many see him as a red flag waved in front of Arab voters, who hold him accountable as prime minister during the events of October 2000, when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in riots.

In the meantime, all five candidates are testing their strength in visits and talks with Arab representatives, and each campaign has established a headquarters in the sector. Vilnai opened his election campaign in the sector at an assembly in Nazareth. Ben-Eliezer came last Thursday to the villages in the Gilboa region.

"There is an ancient tie between the Arab public and the party. They don't know how to exploit it, but it still hasn't disappeared," says the head of the Jaljulya local council, Fayik Uda, who will likely support Ben-Eliezer.

The registration process is simple, as another Ben-Eliezer activist, Wissam Taha of Kafr Qasem, explains. Each new member enters his name, national ID number and address on the form. Annual dues are NIS 40. "I began six months ago with the close family circle. From the immediate family, you move to the extended family, the clan. We work on the `one friend brings another' method. One helps me out with 10 registrants, another with 60. Some register 300," he says.

The big question is how many will actually vote in the primaries. Officials within and outside the party are mocking this registration drive. Arab parties claim the process is impaired, and they condemn the people joining Labor. Laborites also have complaints about the drive, especially on behalf of candidates who aren't faring well.

"Is it our fault Jews don't have clans? We register people and everything is legal. The clans include a lot of doctors, lawyers and educated people. They need to be embraced, not pushed out," says Nawaf Masalha, a former Knesset speaker and deputy foreign minister. After taking a breather from politics and chairing the Histadrut labor federation's foreign relations department, he recently returned to the Labor Party alongside Peretz.

Raleb Majadele, chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, who also chairs the Labor faction's Arab precinct, is one of those most sought after. He has not yet endorsed a candidate, but is letting them stew, and is only willing to say that, as far as Barak is concerned, he has not changed his mind and will not support him. "Barak has taken no confidence-building steps toward the Arab public," he said yesterday.

At a press conference yesterday for the Arab sector, Barak said he is aware "there are memories and scars," but he is convinced that Arabs registering for Labor also know he is the only one who can unseat Likud.

"Barak created a deep rift, it's not a few scars," Majadele said. "And if 13 dead are scars to him, then that's grave in my view."

Majadele said he did not anticipate the Arab registration's impressive results. He attributes the success to Labor's endeavors in the Arab sector since entering the coalition.

Taha, the Ben-Eliezer campaign activist, thinks otherwise: "Why do people register for the Labor party? They register for a friend they believe in, for me."