Take Me, Sharon

On the eve of the primaries, indifference grips the Labor Party: 46 percent of its members want to see Sharon as prime minister and 76 percent think the party should main in the government until the 2006 elections.

In medical terms, the Labor Party ­ as reflected in the survey results outlined here ­ is a lifeless body, with limp, dangling limbs. In political terms, it is a party that has lost its fighting spirit and instinct for power, even at the price of self-destruction. Not only its leaders and senior officials have lost interest in the party, but also the rank and file members, who comprise its backbone. They are indifferent to its fate and have despaired of it. They do not believe in the party, its future or its chances. From their perspective, the party might as well close up shop.

In less than a month, the Labor Party will hold primaries. In any normal party, certainly in a party that aspires to rule, the final days of an election contest are adrenaline-fired days of high spirits and street battles among activists. Instead, a deathly silence pervades the Labor Party. Not only because of the holidays, and not only because of competition between the distinguished candidates, who look like those quarreling over the helm of the Titanic ­ but also because of the party's rank and file members .

A poll conducted by Haaretz-Dialog under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs sought to survey the opinions of Labor Party members on several current issues. Like, for example, who the next prime minister should be; or whether the Labor Party should join a Knesset list headed by Sharon, as Interior Minister Ophir Pines suggested this week; or whether the party should quit the government at some point. To their credit (575 people representing a representative sample of about 98,000 members), one can say that the political framework to which they belong (by virtue of a monthly tax) does not prevent them from speaking their minds candidly. As in the title of the hit Israeli TV show, party members are saying, "Take me, Sharon ."

Thus, for example, members were asked whether they would support their party joining a new list, a virtual one at this stage, led by Sharon. Some 46 percent responded affirmatively and 44 percent said "No." It is interesting to examine what happened in the United Kibbutz Movement (known by its Hebrew acronym, Takam), which represents the embodiment of the Labor Party in its extreme definition: Ashkenazi, center-left on the political-diplomatic process and center-right on socio-economic issues. About 50 percent of the respondents in kibbutzim responded "Yes."

Another question posed to party members was: "Without regard to party affiliation, who do you think should be the next prime minister, Shimon Peres or Ariel Sharon?" Here there was almost a tie: 39 percent for Sharon and 43 percent for Peres. If we remove the Arab members from the picture, Sharon wins a majority ­ among Labor Party members! In the kibbutz movement, 36 percent chose Peres and 35 percent Sharon. In the central district of the Labor Party, which includes cities like Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Givatayim, there is a majority for Sharon: 41.4 percent versus 38.8 percent. In the south, there is an unequivocal majority for Sharon: 45.5 percent versus 39.5 percent . The same goes for the moshavim. If this is what the members want, why didn't they join the Likud? Only the Arab members saved Peres from a bitter defeat on this question.

Peres' declaration, Peretz's dilemma

Last week, in these pages, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the leading candidate in the race for party leadership, said that it would be best for the party to remain in the government until the elections in 2006, a year from now. Peres realized that he was treading on solid ground when he said this, although it is contrary to a healthy political tradition in which rival parties are rivals, especially prior to elections . The Haaretz-Dialog poll indicates that 76.5 percent of the party's membership shares Peres' thinking. Only 15.5 percent think the opposite. Even among the party's Arab membership, there is a clear majority (73 percent) in favor of remaining in the government until the 2006 elections. This, by the way, calls into question the central plank in Amir Peretz's campaign, which advocates Labor's immediate exit from the government. It is not clear that Peretz chose the correct line for himself if even the Arabs, his main supporters, do not agree with him on this issue.

Peretz has another dilemma: to what extent to attack Peres. A personal attack against the person who brought him into the party is liable to harm the attacker, Peretz realizes. On the other hand, he needs to emphasize his differences with Peres. In the meantime, he prefers to attack Peres' messages (his plan to obliterate poverty, his desire to remain in the government), while also gently prodding Peres. "Imagine, Peretz's associates say, "if the chairman of the Democratic Party in the U.S. said that he wants Bush to continue to serve as president."

The question of age has not arisen yet, except for the subtle reminder Matan Vilnai offers his listeners at his appearances: On November 9, they will be choosing a candidate for prime minister who will compete next year for a four-year term. Do you understand this? Vilnai asks, without explicitly saying "87" (Peres' age at the end of the next term).

The alienated, reserved attitude of Labor members toward their party is also salient in the responses to the following question: "Do you think the Labor Party has a chance of returning to power during the coming years and forming a government in Israel?" While most of the respondents (58 percent) answered in the affirmative, a look at the breakdown of responses reveals that only 20.5 percent said they were "sure" of this and 37.5 percent said they "thought" so. In Takam, the litmus test, only 12.3 percent are sure of Labor's return to power, and 27.7 percent "think" this will happen .

It is difficult to know whether the members influence the leadership or vice versa when it comes to the Labor Party's complete self-effacement vis-a-vis the Likud and Sharon. It is not only the proposal by Pines to run on a joint ticket, or the untiring efforts of Haim Ramon, the prophet of the "big bang," to combine the two parties, or the determination of Peres to remain in the government until the elections, or the obvious desire of the other Labor Party ministers to continue to pull the cart together with Arik, Silvan, Shaul and Tzipi, as if there were no political tomorrow. This merger is also expressed in small things, which are ostensibly unimportant.

There were two main events in the Likud last week: the bar mitzvah of the son of Oved Yehezkel, a close aide of Ehud Olmert, and the wedding of Oren Helman, a close advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu. These were two events exclusively for Likudniks. Minister Isaac Herzog from the Labor Party was at both of them. The Likud faction chairman, MK Gideon Sa'ar, met him at both parties. Either you don't have any celebrations of your own, he said to Herzog, or you've decided to compete in the Likud .

Netanyahu is looking for a new Yvet

Since his defeat, Benjamin Netanyahu has become a bit melancholy. He has disappeared from the media, which has stirred rumors of depression and seclusion. But this is not the case. During the past weeks, Netanyahu has met often with central committee members, MKs and ministers who stood by his side in his fight against Sharon over the scheduling of primaries. In these conversations, he demonstrates determination to move on to the primaries against Sharon come what may, but also a sort of acceptance of a crueler fate that he is liable to encounter along the way: Likud elections, a defeat at the hands of Sharon, and quite a few years of warming the back benches in the Knesset, because it is clear to him that he will not be a minister under Sharon. He is already emotionally prepared for this eventuality, his interlocutors say.

Meanwhile, as a lesson from his defeat in the Likud Central Committee, which was not inevitable, Netanyahu has begun to look for a new Avigdor (Yvet) Lieberman for himself, for someone he defines as a "political chief of staff." Since his return to politics, about five years ago, Netanyahu has not succeeded in recruiting a heavyweight political advisor, a real Likud man who knows the party like the palm of his hand, someone who is very familiar with the centers of power, those pulling the strings, the DNA of the most muscular party in Israel. Lieberman (from 1993-96) helped Netanyahu win the leadership of the Likud and later the premiership. Uri Shani did the same thing for Ariel Sharon from 1999 to 2001. But these types are very scarce in the political market. One in a million.

They say that Netanyahu's chief of staff, Yehiel Leiter, specializes in raising money in the U.S., but mobilizing votes in the Likud Central Committee is not his field of expertise. Likud MKs who worked with Netanyahu's staff before the central committee vote said they encountered amateurism that bordered on charlatanism. The staff was well-organized, the telephones and computers worked flawlessly, but those who were supposed to chart policy and strategy vis-a-vis central activists, mayors and group leaders, did not have the slightest clue about who was against whom, where, when and why .

According to those close to Netanyahu, he is looking for a political "figure," a multi-talented person who will lead him to victory on the future battlefield, the primaries. One of Netanyahu's spokesmen, Amir Gilat, said that it was (chief of staff) Leiter's idea to look for such a person and that when this person is found, he will work under Leiter and report to him. It is difficult to see someone of the caliber of Yvet Lieberman or Uri Shani or Shimon Sheves taking orders from someone like Leiter. On the other hand, if the new acquisition (who has yet to be selected) is a featherweight who agrees to submit to Leiter's authority, why does Netanyahu need him? And if he does not agree, the disputes, conflicts and power struggles will begin, and Netanyahu will then need to choose between them. There are those who say that he has already made his choice.