A Party That Devours Its Leaders

Instead of ending legitimate internal struggles, the party's primaries mark the beginning of the next leadership scuffle.

In one of the final stages of the negotiations on the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan was called to the United States for talks with Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil. A number of negligible issues had not been settled in the direct negotiations, and the administration wanted President Jimmy Carter to broker a mini-summit to settle them. Dayan's small entourage included Eliyahu Ben Elissar, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office.

The Camp David talks failed to jumpstart the quagmired negotiations. Despite American pressure, the Israelis and Egyptians insisted on splitting hairs. Then Carter decided to summon Menachem Begin as well. Dayan agreed with the move. Ben Elissar disagreed, arguing that Carter's invitation was an American-Egyptian conspiracy to push the prime minister into a corner and force him to back down.

Ben Elissar preferred that Begin hold talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, rather than Prime Minister Khalil. "You'd better pressure the U.S. to persuade Sadat to come to Washington as well," Ben Elissar told Dayan. The foreign minister pointed to the two telephones in the room and told Ben Elissar: "There are telephones here. You want to apply pressure - be my guest."

The reactions of most of Labor's Knesset members to the coalition agreement signed at the end of last week are reminiscent of Ben Elissar's attitude. Danny Yatom said the negotiations could have ended differently and Matan Vilnai is not pleased with the implied portfolio distribution. This eminent pair of charismatics are under the illusion that if they had run the talks, the outcome would have been infinitely better for Labor.

The Labor Party is a political sinkhole. There is not one moment of quiet and stability in it. Instead of ending legitimate internal struggles, the party's primaries mark the beginning of the next leadership scuffle. Merely five months ago Labor united behind Amir Peretz, the surprising victor, and extolled his virtues - yet now he must defend himself from the drawn swords at the party's central committee. Only a month ago did Labor's elected MKs call on Israelis to vote for their party's leader, and now that leader is fighting for his place. This is a party that devours its leaders, as Amram Mitzna and Ehud Barak can testify. Even Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who competed with each other, endured the same for many years.

Giving the elected leader a period of quiet to establish his authority and develop his policy is not an accepted rule of the game in this party. Both the veteran and novice politicians rising against Peretz are treating him like the Likud's leaders treated Uzi Cohen until recently - like an embarrassing nuisance - and not like a leader who should be cherished. They (Vilnai, for example) have already called Peretz an electoral failure and a midget as a leader. They (Ephraim Sneh, for example) have stated that he is not qualified to be defense minister and that if a deputy is not appointed, Israel will be in danger. They (Yatom, for example) announced that he is useless as a negotiator and that Ehud Olmert maneuvered him into insulting compromises. They (all those who see themselves as ministerial candidates and know their wish will not come true) accuse him of deceiving the voters and of faulty judgment.

In the Jotham parable (Judges 9), the fruit trees annoint the thorn tree as their king. The conduct of Yatom and his colleagues displays a similar attitude: They see themselves as the fig tree, the olive tree and the vine, and their elected leader as a dry stick. And they fail to realize that by doing so they are cutting off the branch they are all sitting on.