When Amir Met Ofer and Shelly Started to Sweat

It's lovely when bitter enemies make up. But could Amir Peretz and Ofer Eini be forging an alliance to unseat the Labor leader?

As if Shelly Yacimovich didn't have enough on her plate with Labor Party veterans moaning about her "all-star" list of rookies, now she has to deal with the resurrection of an old friendship – that could produce a powerful alliance against her.

Her former mentor, firebrand labor leader Amir Peretz, had two one-on-one meetings with Ofer Eini after years of hostility between the two men. Eini, who succeeded Peretz as chairman of the umbrella union, the Histadrut, is a Yacimovich stalwart. Peretz regards him as a man who turned on him.
Following their meeting last week at a hotel in the center of the country both claimed they were just clearing the air. But the timing of the meeting raised quite a few eyebrows.

To understand why this reconciliation is so noteworthy, we need to go back in time six years, when Peretz quit his position as Histadrut chairman to run for the leadership of the Labor Party.

Peretz held the Histadrut very dear and had no intention of entrusting it to just anyone. He handpicked Eini, then a Histadrut activist in Be’er Sheva, known to no one but a small circle of people. Peretz assumed that Eini would show proper gratitude by supporting him unreservedly.

But Eini turned out to be nobody’s puppet.

Sources close to the Histadrut say Eini is simply an independent sort. Others accuse him of opportunism, saying that moth-like, he's attracted to the foci of power.

Rivers of bad blood

When Peretz first ran for the Labor Party leadership against Shimon Peres in 2006, Eini supported him enthusiastically. During the party primary in mid-2007, this time between Peretz and Ehud Barak, matters were completely different.
Barak’s people marked Eini as a major player and set about wooing him.

Realizing that Peretz had been weakened (after an abysmal term as defense minister during the Second Lebanon War) and that Barak was growing stronger, Eini threw his support behind Barak, turning his back on Peretz.

Peretz felt he'd been stabbed in the back.

As far as he was concerned, he'd raised Eini from obscurity to greatness; he had nurtured him as successor and protege, and now the turncoat had joined forces with his political rival.

“It wasn’t just a bit of bad blood between them, but whole rivers of it,” said a close associate, describing the rift.

Peretz has a long memory and divides the world into two categories: those who are for him and those who are against him. Eini is the same way. The rift that opened between them was deep and wide.

Peretz, who had failed in his bid against Barak, decided to repay Eini for his disloyalty. His opportunity came in the latest Histadrut elections in May 2012: Peretz threw his support behind Eitan Cabel, the new candidate who hoped to unseat Eini.

Eini wasn't about to roll over. Cabel had to go through jungles of bureaucratic red tape. This included a complaint about invalid registration forms, an attempt to disqualify him from running because he had not paid his Histadrut dues during his term as a Knesset member. When it looked like Eini would succeed in blocking Cabel from running, Peretz announced his own candidacy and submitted 9,000 forms (only 5,000 were required) of Histadrut members who supported him.

Eini still won, with 66 percent of the vote – much less than in the previous elections, to be sure, but he was still chairman.

Alliance of mice

Possibly the bitter rivalry between Peretz and Eini would have continued if they hadn't met at a Labor Party convention about two weeks ago and decided that the time had come for them to clear the air.

“Sometimes you look back and don’t get what the fuss was about,” a close associate says.

When the meeting was scheduled, only very few people knew about it. Peretz and Eini left it smiling. It seemed all was well.

But was this really no more than patching up an old quarrel? Possibly. But it could be something much bigger.

“Even if nothing has been decided yet about their working together, there is no longer an obstacle on the personal level to what could be a mutually beneficial relationship,” a close associate said. “They weren’t on speaking terms before, and now they are. In Israeli politics, things always happen for a reason.”

“An alliance of the weak,” is how another associate characterized the relationship, adding, “Eini has become very weak over the past year. There were complaints about him in the media that damaged his reputation. He lost a third of his supporters in the elections.”

Eini’s relationship with Yacimovich is not as good as it once was, notes another close associate.

“Yacimovich realized a bit later than everyone else that Eini wasn’t the strongest card in her deck,” he says. “She’s smart and fair-minded, and to put it mildly, she was not happy with the complaints against Eini – that he was tight with the tycoons, gave jobs to cronies and that the Histadrut had bought him an apartment with money that came from membership dues. She would never say anything publicly against organized labor, but the relationship between them is not what it once was.”

But Eini isn't the only one whose position has weakened. Peretz, once the most important man in the Labor Party, is now a Knesset member who has been given a sound trouncing by his own pupil, Yacimovich.

“In this situation, where two people who were once major figures have become very weak, it’s only natural that they’d consider joining forces against the existing system,” the associate said.

Will Eini and Peretz create a new alliance that gives Yacimovich a rough time?

Sources familiar with the party are dismissive.

“The elections are coming up, and everybody wants the party to win,” they say. “The knives will come out from that direction only if the results are bad. If the party gets 20 or more seats – in other words, if Yacimovich succeeds as party leader – then the new alliance will vanish into thin air. If the party should get fewer than 20 seats, Eini and Peretz will be able to assemble a coalition with other disaffected people, making things very tough for Yacimovich.”

According to a Labor Party figure, the Eini-Peretz alliance also depends on Yacimovich’s response. “If she panics, she could lend strength to something that hasn’t even been born yet,” he says. “But if she welcomes the reconciliation and is nonchalant about it, the meeting will go back to being what it originally was – a clearing of the air between two people who had not been on speaking terms for some years.”