Labor Big Guns Hit the Phones to Drum Up Support

Party leaders past and present canvas potential voters as the battle for the floating voter heats up.

Senior Labor members took to the telephones at party headquarters in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood yesterday, calling potential voters and pitching the party's platform for the March 28 election. Selecting their calls from a list of people who, at one time or another, were identified as Labor supporters, the top Laborites called on them to return to the fold.

Time after time, Labor leader Amir Peretz was forced to assure the person on the other end of the line that he was not the victim of some Purim prank. "Yes, Mrs. Ginsburg, this is the real Amir Peretz. Really. How can you be sure? Well, you can't see my mustache over the telephone!" What was clear was that Peretz was enjoying himself. He moved from one conversation to the next, chatting, persuading, laughing. "Juliette Nissim from Or Yehuda? Her family has been Labor members for years. My wife's an Iraqi too. So you're with us? Now you have to go out and persuade the rest of your neighborhood."

The list of potential voters was made up from people known to have voted Labor at some time in the past, as well as party members who let the membership lapse. In order to persuade them to return to the party, the 'big guns' were recruited - Knesset members Isaac Herzog, Ophir Pines-Paz and Yuli Tamir; candidates Ami Ayalon and Aryeh Amit; and party veterans Hagai Meirom, Uzi Baram, Luba Eliav and others.

Matchmaker Tamir

The more senior the position, the more, it seemed, they enjoyed themselves. Tamir tried her hand as matchmaker, setting up a date between one young voter and her cleaning woman, while Ayalon was visibly vexed by some of his conversations. Yuval Albashan, head of the party's planning division, reported one very surprising response: "Get rid of the Arab from your party," he was told, "and I'll vote for you."

But the longer they spent on the phone, the clearer the party's poor position became. For the media, Peretz still insists that he is competing for prime minister, but in conversations with voters, the party has been forced to admit that it is running for second place behind Kadima. "You should vote for us so that we will have a strong presence in the coalition," the voters were urged.

There is a mounting sense of frustration among Labor campaigners at the party's stagnation in the polls. "I'm out in the field every day," said Herzog, "and I don't see Kadima there and don't hear about people who plan to vote for Kadima. But I can't see that in the polls."

Campaign leaders are sticking by the party's current line, which says that Labor is competing for the right to form the next government, not merely to strengthen its hand ahead of coalition talks with Kadima. That said, party sources say that, in the days before the election, the leadership may call for voters to back them in order for Labor to be a strong member of the coalition, a de facto admission that Ehud Olmert will be forming the next government. Peretz, in the meantime, continues to claim that "the election results will be a big surprise for everyone. There is a huge gap between the public and the results of the polls. And there are two dozen seats up for grabs in the form of floating voters. We'll surprise everyone."