Barak as Victor, Peres as Punching Bag

After Labor's central committee vote last week, it became clear that the party's chairman was the big loser.

A week before the Labor Party Central Committee convened to decide the system it would use to elect ministers, either the "Hit Parade," or the "Wall of Death" (named after a popular carnival motorcycle stunt), Haim Ramon pleaded with Shimon Peres to present a third proposal: for the party chairman to present a closed list of ministers to the central committee. That list, by the way, closely resembled the list of those who were elected last Thursday at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds: Peres' list would have included seven of the eight ministers-elect.

"Go for it," Ramon urged Peres. "Go up on the stage, and we will all back you and persuade the central committee to go along."

Ramon, who fought for his life in the central committee and was the last to squeak through - even stipulating the exact post he wanted, as a minister in the Prime Minister's Office - explained to Peres that the "Hit Parade" system chosen by the party's constitution committee abandoned candidates to the mercy of Ehud Barak: "Barak has 200 loyal voters in the central committee. Why give him that power?"

Peres considered Ramon's question - and answered negatively. He was afraid to fight the system, just as he was afraid to fight for the primary date that he wanted: February, 2005.

Last Thursday at 10 P.M., it became clear that Peres was the big loser. Not because the central committee placed two highly admired youngsters at the top of its list - but because six of the seven elected ministers now oppose Peres. Only Haim Ramon is with him, and that does not count for a lot.

Ophir Pines-Paz and Isaac Herzog received massive support from Ehud Barak and his constituents. They owe him - not Peres. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer never felt that he owed Peres, and now it's even less, because Ben-Eliezer was first on the list that Peres was supposed to present to the central committee for approval. Peres' surrender hurt Ben-Eliezer - first and foremost. Ben-Eliezer, who came in third after Pines-Paz and Herzog, took a hard blow overall because the central committee was mainly composed of individuals who were his loyal, staunch supporters. The committee was formed by "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, then chairman of Labor, his loyal supporter, former MK Weizman Shiri and party secretary-general Pines-Paz. That also explains Pines-Paz's place.

Peres also can't expect much of Dalia Itzik. If he had responded to the pleas of Ramon and Itzik to present a list, she would have received a higher position. He also neutralized her at the final, critical stage of coalition negotiations, when Sharon black-listed her. From now on, her way to Barak is paved.

There are two other ministers who owe nothing to Peres: Vilnai, who was always the senior statesman's adversary - and is particularly one now, after Peres' constituents worked against him in the central committee - and Shalom Simhon, Barak's chief of staff.

This is the all-star team that is entering the Sharon government with Peres. Except for Ramon, they all have outstanding accounts with the Labor Party chairman. So Barak has reason to feel more arrogant than ever in light of the election last week. It is, in fact, his victory.

By relinquishing the run for a ministerial position, Barak made a strategic declaration that will be tested in coming months: He decided to stay out of the government based on the assumption that three of the Labor representatives in the Sharon government, who are his potential opponents for the party leadership (Peres, Ben Eliezer and Vilnai), will not benefit from the experience.

Peres will soon becoming the punching bag of the Likud. Every government meeting will open with clashes between him and Likud ministers. They will attack and he will defend. The other Labor ministers will merely disappear. They will find it hard to justify their existence in the shadow of the two elder statesmen, Peres and Sharon, at a table flanked by senior ministers who are really senior - like Shaul Mofaz, Silvan Shalom and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Those in the Barak camp assume that the Labor ministers will find it hard to function. What can really be accomplished in a single year of work? Their ministerial budget will remain in Netanyahu's grasp. Appointments that they want to pass to their own constituents must be signed by the finance minister - Netanyahu. The euphoria will evaporate quickly. Business will start to grind. Arguments will test everyone's nerves. Barak, outside the government, will be a rock of stability for the malcontent. Like Amram Mitzna, on the tranquil margins of Sharon's first unity government.

`Bibi's return'

Last Thursday, with uncharacteristic modesty and without media fanfare, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a potential candidate for the Likud leadership, opened what his close constituents call, "Bibi's return to the field." Following a professional tour of Or Akiva, Netanyahu assembled about 300 activists and central committee members in a reception hall for a Likud party conference. For Netanyahu, this was the first event of its type since he became finance minister in Sharon's government. If invited, the media would have undoubtedly expressed interest, even though it was the night that Labor elected its ministers.

Until Thursday night, Netanyahu preferred to maintain contact with party activists in a discreet fashion: small meetings in his Jerusalem bureau with about 10 central committee members at each meeting. From now on, it will be a different story: Each week, he intends to conduct a tour of another community in Israel followed by a political conference with party members at the end of the day. One such event will take place in Ramat Aviv on Thursday. In following weeks, he will go to Kiryat Shmona, Beit She'an and Dimona.

What changed Netanyahu's strategy? On one hand, his relatively weak standing with Likud members resulting from, among other things, the withdrawn ultimatum that he presented Sharon regarding a national referendum. On the other, the upcoming primaries for the leadership of the Likud.

No one believes that the elections for Knesset will take place on the scheduled date of November, 2006. The common assumption is that they will be moved to the beginning of 2006. This means that Likud primaries will take place in late 2005, which is right around the corner, and Bibi is gearing up to run. This does not that he finally intends to run against Sharon. But he must be prepared.

The event in Or Akiva was attended by four MKs in addition to Netanyahu and party activists - all of them leading Likud rebels: Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Ehud Yatom, Yuli Edelstein, and Ayoub Kara. Rivlin, once an avid adversary of Netanyahu, is now considered to be an ally. Says Rivlin: "I go from party branch to party branch explaining that, without direction, the Likud has no right to exist. My rebellion has to do with the direction, and not with its leader."

Netanyahu presented a different line than that of Sharon in almost every matter. He continued to justify a referendum on disengagement, despite Sharon's total and broad opposition; he agreed with Rivlin's statement that the Likud lacks direction, and that the party must formulate a direction before coming elections.

Netanyahu's message was unilateral: Policy and direction must be determined by the movement. And the movement's leader must honor this policy. Not the opposite. We will see what Netanyahu says when he is party chairman.