Barak Triumphs in Labor Vote on New Party Constitution

Labor chief strikes compromise deal to hold party primaries in 2012; faction's rebel MKs boycott convention.

Labor chairman Ehud Barak convinced the party convention Wednesday to vote on a new party constitution that would significantly increase the chairman's powers. He next intends to bring Labor's Knesset faction to heel by introducing a code of discipline.

Barak triumphed in the convention after striking a compromise with Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog on scheduling new primaries. The deal stipulates that the party's next internal election will be held in 2012 - as Barak had originally intended - not 2014.

An hour after his sweeping victory, Barak held a closed meeting in which he slammed the faction's rebel MKs - Yuli Tamir, Ophir Pines-Paz, Eitan Cabel and Amir Peretz. They boycotted the convention, and Barak accused them of conducting a campaign to delegitimize him.

"They've been engaged in a systematic attempt to delegitimize me, and I don't want to go further and use the term character assassination. It's an attempt to undermine the public's faith in the leader," Barak said.

Barak added, however, that he would welcome the four dissenters back into the fold.

He called the rebels "thought-frozen" people who are preoccupied with attacking him wildly and do not obey decisions by party institutions.

"These people are internally impotent and I don't see exactly how they can become potent outside the party," Barak said.

"They try to portray me as a bully, although the process of approving the constitution has been going on for three months with full transparency and dozens of reservations that were submitted and have been accepted."

Barak dismissed the rebels' claim that he was to blame for the party's deteriorating situation rather than its members and previous constitution.

"The constitution isn't everything, but the changes in it are necessary for its rehabilitation. If I thought I was the root of the problem, I'd pass the scepter to one of the rebels or to another comrade immediately," he said.

Barak said the constant bickering, much of it covered by the media, have caused Labor to look bad in the public eye and have lost it Knesset seats. Despite everything, he said he would be ready to resume work with the four if they accept the convention's decisions.

Barak said he would try to meet with each of the rebels in a bid to prevent a split in the party. But he would not give in to them. "Whoever refuses to accept the party institutions' authority will not be able to be with us. If the price is a smaller faction then we'll pay it, but we'll be a more effective faction," he said.

Barak said he was willing "to go very far to ensure the dissenters return and we'll be together, but I won't have each one doing whatever he wants," he said.

He plans to introduce a code of discipline including sanctions on those who flout the rules, such as denying MKs the right to give speeches and submit bills in the Knesset. A clause in the new constitution enables convention members to petition against an MK who acts against the convention's decisions. This is punishable by denying the MKs the right to run for Labor in the next elections.

He said the changes in the constitution that the convention approved last night give him, as chairman, greater freedom of action and were vital to the party's recovery.

"I've been chairman of this party for two years and haven't even been able to open a Web site because of the chains on my hands. There's no other way - a party without an institution to examine and deal with petitions is a different party," he said.

"I will fight for the right to fight for anything, for freedom of thought and freedom of argument, but ultimately there are decisions, and whoever can't accept them won't be able to be part of a living, active, winning system," he said in his speech at the convention.

In the address, though he called on the rebels to return to party ranks, he also castigated them for failing to toe the party line.

"Not to accept the convention's authority is not moral conduct. It violates proper public norms and corrupts the party. This conduct is impotent because it doesn't affect reality, unlike taking part in the government," Barak said.

By the time the convention started Barak had ensured a large majority for changing the constitution. He seemed relaxed. But in the hours before the meeting he held feverish talks with ministers Herzog and Avishay Braverman, and Pines-Paz, who represented the rebels.

The ministers, who said on Tuesday that they were siding with the rebels, threatened to boycott the convention when Barak refused their demand for changes in the constitution.

Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini mediated and managed to soften Barak, who demanded that the primaries be held six months before the elections. Ultimately Barak compromised and agreed to have primaries a year before elections.

The rebels were not satisfied and Pines-Paz said he would not attend the convention.

Herzog and Braverman did not sit in the front row reserved for party leaders, but told the media that the compromise had saved the party from splitting.

"We came to this process in good faith to save our home and prevent a historic tragedy, the disintegration of the Labor Party," Herzog said. "It could have ended in a split, a violent explosion, but now there's a chance to start on a new way."

Ministers Shalom Simhon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer supported Barak and praised him in their speeches. Knesset faction chairman Daniel Ben-Simon said that "I'm not on the side of the people talking about splitting. I will not be the man who lends a hand to splitting the party. No party in Israel is more democratic than Labor. Rebels, let's make peace."

Labor sources said yesterday that Barak managed to prevent a party split last night. The rebels need a fifth member who would enable them to quit as a faction. Pines-Paz took a milder stance yesterday and admitted that "the situation is better now than it was 24 hours ago."