How Would-be Labor Leaders Divided and Conquered Themselves

Isaac Herzog and Amram Mitzna refused to team up in the Labor leadership race, thus paving the way for Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich to beat them handily.

Ten days before the Labor Party primary, Erel Margalit, the high-tech businessman from Jerusalem, decided to leave the race and back Isaac Herzog as chairman. Margalit saw that Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich were leading, and was horrified to think that one of them would win.

In the week before the primary, Margalit met with Amram Mitzna and Herzog at his office on three consecutive nights, nearly until daybreak. He tried to persuade them to team up against Peretz and Yachimovich. At the first meeting, he asked each to list his rival's advantages. Herzog objected, but after some persuasion muttered that Mitzna, "a major general in the reserves," has a security background.

Shelly Yachimovich, Amir Peretz
Amos Biderman

Mitzna could not see any advantages in Herzog. "I will help you," volunteered Margalit. "Do people like him?" Mitzna mumbled "yes." "Are people loyal to him?" Mitzna had to admit they are. "Is he young?" asked Margalit. Mitzna had to acknowledge that. This went on into the night.

Then Margalit asked each one to list his own disadvantages. Herzog admitted that some people have trouble seeing him as a leader. That he comes across as an indefatigable compromiser. Mitzna reportedly admitted that he is perceived as cold - but insisted he is the only one of the candidates who would make a good prime minister.

Margalit suggested that Mitzna be Herzog's No. 2. Mitzna insisted that Herzog be his No. 2, because he is a leader and Herzog is not. "But Buji [Herzog] is a lot stronger than you are," Margalit said to him. "You don't understand the extent to which you've lost. You are making the mistake of your life."

Mitzna finished the race with a measly 11.9 percent, an embarrassing outcome for a person with his record. Herzog received twice that, 24.6 percent, but still did not make it into the second round. Had Mitzna resigned from the race, presumably most of his votes would have gone to Herzog and Yachimovich, and the two of them would have gone on to the second round, which Herzog would have had a better chance of winning.

The day after the vote, Herzog blamed the public opinion polls and the commentators for his failure. He had one particular poll in mind - a mid-July poll on Channel 2 News that predicted only 17 percent support for him, versus 42 percent for Yachimovich and 24 percent for Peretz. The survey, which was conducted by an unknown pollster and reported by Yachimovich's former employer, raised eyebrows.

As of yesterday morning, Mitzna had not spoken to reporters following his loss, but he directed his frustration mainly at MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. Early this year, when Mitzna was about to end his term as Yeruham's government-appointed mayor, they had promised him their unqualified support if he joined the Labor leadership race. For his own reasons he was slow to throw his hat into the ring. When he finally did, belatedly, he discovered that both of them were gone.

"Ofer and Fuad will bear responsibility for the party if I am not elected," he said to one of his supporters.

Meanwhile, Peretz, in a series of radio interviews, has lashed out at Yachimovich, his former protege, who is threatening to do to him exactly what he did to his own patron, Shimon Peres, six years ago: use him and dispose of him. Implicitly, he accused her of racism. Explicitly, he claimed the Prime Minister's Bureau and Likud leaders helped her because they believe she could steal votes from Kadima and its chairwoman MK Tzipi Livni.

The day before the primary, Peretz called Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud ): "Why are you helping Shelly?" he demanded.

"I am very fond of Shelly and grateful for her assistance in my presidency bid, but I am not helping her," replied Rivlin.

"People told me you were talking about her," accused Peretz.

"So talk to them," riposted Rivlin.

Maybe you nevertheless really did try to help Yachimovich?

Rivlin: "Maybe I asked how Shelly was doing. But not beyond that. My positions are social and democratic but I am not a social democrat."

On the day of the primary Peretz called MK Haim Katz (Likud ), Yachimovich's partner on a number of laws and a former member of Peretz's One Nation faction.

"I told him he should stop calling people and threatening them not to vote for me," relates Peretz. "His people went around the polling stations with Shelly T-shirts, making threats."

Yachimovich says in response: "That is a figment of his imagination."

On Wednesday I asked Peretz why he was so angry.

Peretz: "You people [the media] have a trait: You say one person is fighting or determined, and you say another person is angry. I was not angry. I was gentle. If I were to reveal everything I know, your hair would stand on end."

What, for example?

"For example, today a worker at [a certain factory] called me and told me he received a call telling him that if he did not vote for Shelly, he would be fired."

Where are you taking the second round?

"All of us are 'social.' Everyone knows that. I am social, Shelly is social. But look at what is happening - in two weeks there will be a United Nations vote on a Palestinian state. The situation with Turkey is tough. Everything is burning here. A party leader should address those issues, too. We are not a niche party. I expect to hear what Shelly thinks. I've heard she has said that she'll have 'good advisers' on those issues. That's funny."

Peretz says that if he wins, the Labor Party will not fall apart. "I'll work with Shelly. Why not? She could be a good partner. Like me, she wants a state that embraces its citizens, not a state that is cruel to them like (Prime Minister Benjamin ) Netanyahu's state. I believe that even the Likudniks know this, and when I say Likudniks will support me, I know what I am taking about. First of all, I need to rehabilitate the party and only afterward will I be able to rehabilitate the state."

When Yachimovich's associates are asked why Peretz is so angry, they have a ready answer. "We challenged his voter recruitment, so he's angry. We had a team of lawyers checking every single form. We started out with 88,000 forms and ended up with 66,000. Most of the forms that were disqualified were his. We insisted that registration not be paid for through checks, that no more than five family members could be paid for in one bill, that there be cross-checks with Kadima voters. Had we not done that, Amir would have won the election handily, with 51 percent."

Should she become head of Labor, Yachimovich is believed to prefer a government headed by Netanyahu as opposed to Livni. The positive things she said about the settlers in a recent Haaretz Magazine interview and her relations with quite a number of Likud members, like Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, lend credence to these suspicions.

Is this really a possible scenario?

Yachimovich: "These are baseless, ridiculous and mendacious accusations. I could have been the minister of industry and trade in the Bibi (Netanyahu ) government and I refused (former Labor Party chair Ehud ) Barak's offer because I did not want to sit in an extreme right-wing government, in terms of both foreign policy and economy, with (Foreign Minister Avigdor ) Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox and Habayit Hayehudi ... I attack Bibi more than anyone, in every speech. It is true that I want to crush Kadima and it is true that I want the Labor Party to be bigger. Clearly I will go with the left bloc. I have dovish positions and I seek peace and a diplomatic agreement."

Even if Livni is the candidate for prime minister and Bibi offers you, say, the finance portfolio?

"Even then. And I will not conduct coalition negotiations with her before I go to the President's Residence and recommend her [for prime minister]. I am saying here in no uncertain terms: If a right-wing Likud-ultra-Orthodox government arises, I will not be a member."

Yachimovich and Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz meet occasionally at Mofaz's Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee bureau and talk about the day when he will become Kadima chair, and she the Labor chair. Both of them think this is the optimal combination: He will erode the right-wing bloc and bring critical Knesset seats from Likud, while people who leave Kadima because of him will find their home with Yachimovich in the Labor Party. In the end - and this is what will prove crucial - it will all remain in the center-left bloc.

Battered by the protest

The Haaretz-Dialog public opinion poll conducted a day after the primary predicted 22 Knesset seats for Labor under Yachimovich and 18 under Peretz. This is most likely the result of the media attention paid to the Labor voting.

The survey, supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs, also asked respondents who they think is better suited to be prime minister, Livni or Netanyahu. The gap, which used to be in the double digits, has narrowed to 6 percent (Netanyahu 38 percent, Livni 32 percent ). The social protest has exacted its price. In recent months Kadima has lost 8 or 9 Knesset seats in the public opinion polls. Moreover, the diplomatic collapse is not doing Netanyahu any good.

He has been perceived as being passive, although he did finally decide yesterday that he will attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week. U.S. President Barack Obama, of course, will also be in New York. Netanyahu would be happy to meet with him, but he knows he will have to "pay" for such a meeting. Which again raises one question: Lieberman. The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman remains the Netanyahu administration's biggest - and only - threat.

Lieberman indicated to political sources that at some point during the Knesset winter session, which begins October 31, he will set the date for the next elections. "This is going to be a very interesting session," Lieberman has been saying in private conversations.

An anniversary

Four years and 10 days ago, on September 6, Israeli F-16 aircraft reportedly entered Syrian air space and bombed the atomic reactor Syrian President Bashar Assad had built, according to foreign news sources. They returned home unscathed. The reactor story has been reported by innumerable foreign media outlets and in two biographies: those of former U.S. President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney.

September 2007 was very tense. Like now, the Israeli defense establishment was on high alert. There was talk that the other side had misjudged Israel's intentions. Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu was opposition leader. They had become closer, and Olmert shared top-secret security matters with Netanyahu. At the height of the tension, the two agreed that if there was an escalation, Netanyahu would join the Olmert-Livni-Barak government until the end of the term.

The dispute is over the rest of the details: Sources close to Netanyahu say the Likud chairman told them that if circumstances required it, he and a few other top Likud members would join the government. Netanyahu says Olmert offered to appoint him foreign minister, a position then held by Livni. Netanyahu intended to appoint Yuval Steinitz (now finance minister ) as deputy foreign minister and his close associate Prof. Uzi Arad as the ministry's director general.

Olmert's associates say Netanyahu is "confusing reality and imagination, not for the first time." Netanyahu approached Olmert, and Olmert proposed that he join the government as a minister without portfolio, they say. Netanyahu committed to this in a letter, delivered through a third party, they say. Olmert reportely has this letter in his safe to this day. Both Olmert's and Netanyahu's bureaus have refused to comment.