A Friend in the Arab Sector Is a Friend Indeed

Like his Labor Party colleague Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Ehud Barak spent last Saturday in the Arab sector. Barak joined a visit organized by National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, whereas Peretz enjoyed the company of Science, Culture and Sports Minister Ghaleb Majadele. Ben-Eliezer and Majadele's mustering in the primary campaigns is critical for Barak and Peretz.

As Labor Party leaders and defense ministers, both greatly disappointed their Arab supporters. The latter believe Peretz abandoned his dovish ideology in the Second Lebanon War, ordered the bombardment of Gaza despite civilian deaths and did not protest the addition of Yisrael Beiteinu to the government. For his part, Barak earned the unprecedented support of 97 percent of Israel's Arab voters in the 1999 elections. However, as prime minister and defense minister, as far as the Arabs are concerned, he bears direct responsibility for the state's response to the October 2000 disturbances, during which 13 Arabs, 12 of them citizens were shot dead by police, and for the outbreak of the intifada.

More than six years after October 2000, the attitude towards Barak in the Arab sector is a mixture of suspicion, disappointment, anger and memories that have not yet been eradicated.

Peretz's situation is equally difficult. The memories and disappointments are fresh, and without the shrewd move of appointing Majadele as the first Arab minister, Peretz would have been considered irrelevant among registered Arab members of the Labor Party.

Thus far, Majadele has been providing the goods. He has succeeded in registering many thousands, and is in effect serving as Peretz's shock-absorber in the sector. The science minister's presence on his trips serves as Peretz's entry ticket to Arab locales. Majadele's registered party members, according to the plan, are intended to take Peretz into the second round of voting.

The Arab district in the Labor Party accounts for about 15,000 registered party members and there are about 6,000 in the Druze sector, according to the updated membership rolls, which have 120,000 voters. These two districts, like the kibbutz district, stand out for their high voting rates and may have the potential to swing elections. MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who is running in the primaries, has bitten off a considerable portion of the sector, thanks to many years of investment. Another contender in the primaries, MK Danny Yatom, has also succeeded in creating a number of bases of support in the sector in recent years.

Barak needs Arab voters to narrow the gap vis-a-vis MK Ami Ayalon. Ben-Eliezer, a beloved and esteemed figure in the Arab sector, who over the years maintained the sector on a routine basis in various official positions, took it upon himself to open the doors that closed on Barak in October 2000.

On Saturday, Jallal Abu Hussein, a veteran Ben-Eliezer supporter from Baka al-Garbiyeh, welcomed Barak into his home. Ben-Eliezer spoke at length about the problems of the Arab sector and about his commitment, and then moved on to Barak, explaining why he has decided to support him: He views Barak as the most suitable and the most experienced person to lead the party.

"There is no substitute for experience," said Ben-Eliezer. "Just as [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Ariel] Sharon were successful in their second terms, Barak has not changed - but today he comes with more experience and lessons learned."

Ben-Eliezer dealt with the October disturbances land mine by using examples of past leaders. "Remember," he said to them, "Yitzhak Rabin was considered a person who broke arms and legs and as being cruel to the Arabs in the first intifada. But when they informed [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak that he had been murdered, there were tears in eyes and he came to the funeral. Sharon, too, who had been called a murderer all his life, ended up as the darling of the Arab world."

When Barak spoke after Ben-Eliezer, things were much more relaxed, certainly compared to the visits he paid two years ago when he sought to compete for the Labor Party leadership and then dropped out of the race.

"I go wherever Fuad goes," said Tira Labor Party branch secretary Iyyad Mansour, who attended the meeting on Saturday. "We haven't forgotten Barak in October 2000, but we know how to forgive. As far as I am concerned, the fact that Fuad is supporting him changes the picture. If Fuad thinks that he is the most suitable, then he knows."

Meanwhile, in Kafr Kana, Majadele was seeing to an enthusiastic reception for Peretz. Majadele has accompanied Peretz in recent weeks on four tours of Arab locales in the Negev and the North. Aware of the weight of the task that has been laid on his shoulders, along with considerable gratitude to the man who brought about his appointment, Majadele is fully enlisted in Peretz's primaries effort. "Amir [Peretz] has far fewer difficulties than Barak," he asserts. "Amir's difficulty is that he took the defense portfolio and got caught by the war. He didn't start a war, but rather responded. With Barak, it's more complicated. It is impossible to forget October 2000. Even Ben-Eliezer can't really help Barak, because what happened then harmed not only Barak, but also the entire party."

Majadele says he is not worried about Barak's encounters in the Arab sector. "We are hospitable. They won't say 'don't come,' but it's a show," says Majadele. He admits that without his help, "Peretz would be very weak in the sector." He says Peretz's appointment of him as a minister "helped him in the primaries, as well as in changing the public atmosphere. At first there was a debate about my appointment. After a week, people saw that I voted against the government on very sensitive issues, like the excavations at the Mughrabi Gate or the boycott of the Palestinian government. This gave people the feeling that it was not just scenery. Not just decoration. A minister is standing up and arguing."

Majadele praises Peretz. He soften things, explaining that Peretz, despite the war, still seeks peace and is committed to diplomatic moves and the Arabs of Israel. It is a fact that he was the first Labor leader to appoint an Arab minister.

"With all due respect, Ghaleb Majadele is not the Arab sector," says a Barak supporter. "Not even a quarter of it. Amir [Peretz] executed a neat maneuver that will improve his situation with the Arabs, but not dramatically so. Ghaleb [Majadele] has quite a few enemies, so it's nice that all of a sudden he is appearing in their villages with a Volvo and a bodyguard and a defense minister and a whole retinue. But that is not enough."

Even before he recovered from the farce of his failed appointment of Yaakov Ganot as police commissioner, which ended this week with the appointment of Police Major General David Cohen as commissioner, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter suffered a further embarrassment when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to make Peretz responsible for dealing with the home front.

Dichter sought this responsibility, basing his argument on the fact that the National Security Council determined it would be correct to transfer the comprehensive responsibility for the home front to the Internal Security Ministry. Nevertheless, at the government meeting on Sunday, Olmert ruled in favor of the Defense Ministry and Dichter accepted the ruling.

Presumably, if Olmert had adopted the National Security Council recommendations, Peretz would have kicked up a fuss and chalked up another chapter in his endless war with Olmert. Dichter kept quiet, and even took the criticism. "This struggle was a matter of principle for him, and just," said a senior Kadima official, "and it is a pity that he did not fight for his opinion the way he fought for Ganot. It isn't bad for a politician to fight wars like those."

His party colleague, who wishes Dichter well, does not understand what went wrong with the man who had been considered the new promise in politics. According to him, "he came to us as the head of the Shin Bet [security service] decked in glory and sophistication ... and turned out looking like a yes-man who is afraid of entering into a confrontation with Olmert and who becomes embroiled in the appointment of a police commissioner, is walloped by the media and to this day does not understand what went wrong with it."

A year and a half after Dichter's entry into politics and a year after his appointment as internal security minister, the Dichter who said he marked out the Prime Minister's Bureau as his own strategic target, is not gaining ground - publicly or politically. If up until a few months ago he was still considered one of Olmert's potential successors, in a future battle between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, his conduct in recent weeks in the Ganot affair has caused him tremendous damage and he is no longer considered as a political threat. This is especially surprising because Dichter is the minister most active in the internal political activity in Kadima. He feels obligated to the party and to those who have sent him, keeps in touch with thousands of activists and doesn't miss a single meeting. But Dichter and his people are not worried about the present atmosphere and are explaining that while it is perhaps not customary in Israeli politics, "Avi [Dichter] is not here to quarrel."

"He can quarrel with Olmert about the home front," says one of his close associates, "but ... there is a process of orderly staff work at headquarters and in the end we arrive at a democratic decision at the government meeting. So Avi [Dichter] appealed and his opinion was heard and in the end there is one person who sees the overall picture from above and that is the prime minister. We have no interest in political battles. There is a professional issue here and this is what we are contending for."

Dichter, according to supporters, is a person who looks ahead and does not get upset by an article or harsh newspaper headline. Time will tell whether he is here to stay or will be crushed by a system he has not been able to figure out.