Barak Ticks Off Another Success

MK Ami Ayalon was not present when the Labor Party Central Committee decided to make Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak its candidate for the premiership, without additional primaries. A few minutes before the vote, he made his way with silent haste among the ministers and the MKs in the hall at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, and slipped away outside to his car. "I simply understood the principle, so I left," he explained the next day in an interview in his Knesset office, surprised by the journalistic interest in his departure from the hall, which he assumed had passed unnoticed.

The "principle" that Ayalon is referring to is a series of hasty moves by Barak in the three weeks since he beat Ayalon in the primaries for the party leadership, and which were meant to entrench his control of the party - from the appointment of his people in key positions in the party institutions, to the opportunistic cancellation of the additional primaries prior to the elections.

Ayalon watched wistfully , but with considerable disgust, at how in one Central Committee meeting, in less than an hour, Barak achieved a series of goals almost effortlessly, and preferred to save his criticism for another time. Above all, after the loss to Barak, Ayalon is making an effort not to be labeled "subversive." Therefore, in spite of the temptation to say what he really thinks about the behavior of the new chairman, Ayalon restrains himself and says: "Any oppositional move I make now will distance the party from the government. It may promote my interests, but at the moment that is not important. Now we have to ask ourselves how to work together. I believe that everyone deserves 100 days of grace, and I intend to give Barak a genuine opportunity for partnership."

But Ayalon, as he proved during the campaign for the party leadership, cannot long conceal his truth, even if things do not necessarily accord with the strategy determined in advance. After a few more minutes of conversation, he reveals his insights about Barak's aggressive behavior since his victory: "What bothers me is the issue of the procedures. I didn't vote in the Central Committee meeting because I was no longer in the hall, because I thought the procedure was improper. I thought that all the things that were decided in the Central Committee meeting could have been approached in a different manner, in a 30-day process, and we would have achieved the same result."

Barak does not have to fear Ayalon for the time being, or a possible Ayalon-Peretz axis. Although the two enjoy a certain degree of coordination, they are far from establishing a joint homogeneous camp in the party, and for the most part are preoccupied, each one separately, by their personal collapse and determining the appropriate behavior for working under Barak's new rule.

Ayalon is apparently still wavering between the desire to be part of the party leadership sitting in the cabinet and the urge to be the other voice in the party that preferred to preserve the existing establishment. He negotiated with Barak over a cabinet portfolio and could have received the education portfolio, as some of his advisers recommended, but changed his mind at the last moment. However, he did not close the door completely. Barak is still keeping the portfolio open for Ayalon or Peretz. He considers both of them a significant addition and an electoral asset in his race against Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership, but insists on making it clear who the new boss is.

For now, Ayalon has quite a lot of time on his hands to think about his defeat to Barak. Even now he is convinced that linking up with Peretz before the second round was the right thing to do, although it caused him to lose a significant percentage of his supporters in the kibbutzim. He points an accusing finger at the leadership in the kibbutzim, which was opposed to this combination: "Even now I'm convinced that the agreement with Amir Peretz was a correct and appropriate decision - with all due respect to the 1,200 kibbutz members and to some of the leadership of the kibbutz movement, who decided that it hurt our chances. They didn't understand that it damages the kibbutz movement and presents them in the wrong light. It's impossible to place entire populations who have a part in the Labor Party and in Israeli society, beyond the Pale. That is unconscionable. I see that as the political game. It's proper and it's good and there's a statement here that goes far beyond the chairmanship of the party.

"I was also surprised that Ophir Pines-Paz, after I requested his support, told me, 'look, you should have come earlier, before I linked up with Amir [Peretz].' I understood that because Amir was with me, he had formed a tie with Barak. I told him, Amir brought 22 percent and you brought 8 percent, and political correctness required approaching him first."

Ayalon claims that he does not consider his defeat by Barak a failure. He claims that after the fact, it was clear to him that the system of organized voting among the Arabs and the Druze made it impossible for him to win. He sent his complaints about the minority-group voting system to the state comptroller and the police.

"In the Jewish sector I won despite the vote of the moshavim, a majority of which went to Shalom Simhon, and the fact that a large percentage of the kibbutznikim were alarmed by the tie with Amir Peretz. But what was decisive in the end was the vote of the minorities. After all, only 1,700 votes separated me from Barak, and if only 1,350 had changed their minds I would have won. I think that I didn't, and apparently won't in the future either, have the tools to bring about a dramatic change in the vote among the minorities, which is an organized vote. It's not that I didn't make appearances there. But I spoke about renewal and equality, and that apparently doesn't work there."

In spite of the less-than-encouraging insights, Ayalon wants to emphasize that he has not given up. "I'm not sorry about the move I made. It gave vitality to the party and made it more relevant in the public eye. Nor am I going anywhere. I'm staying in the Labor Party and continuing to fight for the things I believe in. I don't intend to leave friends who supported me with the feeling that they did it for nothing. I'll travel around the country and meet all those who voted for me, and also those who didn't vote for me, in order to continue to talk about the things I believe in. I'll do everything possible so that Barak will win the general elections."

"What does Silvan say?" Netanyahu's aides and advisers tried to find out from journalists at the beginning of the week, after Netanyahu decided to move up the primaries, if possible to early August.

But the question remained hanging in the air of the Knesset restaurant. And Silvan Shalom? He's disappeared. Although eyewitnesses reported that he was seen in the Knesset, Shalom did not come to the meeting of the Likud faction that took place that day. Netanyahu and his associates are preparing for a reaction. They expected a typical Shalom attack, waited in vain for a sign of life. Will he run? Won't he run? Will he oppose the date? Will he prevent the convening of the central committee with the claim that the step is illegal?

Netanyahu's associates were prepared to respond to any claim, armed with legal opinions gathered in the past two weeks. First and foremost, of course, is the winning explanation that Shalom is getting what he has wanted for a year and a half - moving up the primaries.

"Sometimes dreams come true," said a Netanyahu associates ironically. "He's probably very happy now. So where is he hiding?" Meanwhile, Netanyahu has begun a series of phone conversations with MKs in the Likud faction, in order to update them and to "consult."

Netanyahu ignored Shalom. "He declared a public war against Netanyahu, has been running a campaign against him for months, and with all due respect we don't owe him an explanation. Even in politics people have limits. He speaks to us via the press, so let him continue to do so," say Netanyahu associates.

But Shalom waited for the evening, and surprised everyone with an orderly and low-key announcement to the political correspondents: "Shalom's confidants are pleased that Netanyahu has accepted his demand to hold primaries. That is a positive and crucial step." Later, the need for observing fair rules of the game was mentioned.

But even this conciliatory announcement cannot conceal the bubbling emotions. Forget about conciliation. Shalom does not intend to allow Netanyahu to benefit from instant primaries in another month. His response will be formulated by Tuesday, when Netanyahu will convene the Likud Party Central Committee to pass the decision to move up the primaries. If it's up to Shalom, that won't happen in August.