Dear Comrades, Dear Mukhtar

Several thousand registration forms of new members will arrive today at the Labor Party offices, and may well determine who will become the next leader of the second largest party in Israel. The secretary general of the Labor Party, MK Eitan Cabel, estimates that these forms will reach the 10,000 mark by the time the membership drive ends at 4 P.M. That is, nearly 15 percent of the party's members suddenly remembered they were loyal to Labor's values and were even prepared to sign a standing order at the bank. (According to Cabel, as of yesterday, the number of party members reached 75,000, compared to 45,000 in the last registration drive.)

This coming May, in the race for the party (and Defense Ministry) leadership, these 10,000 registered party members will be able to tip the balance. In the last primaries, the gap between the new chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and the outgoing chairman, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, was a mere 1,700 votes. According to the opinion polls, the gap between the two leading candidates this time, former prime minister Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon, could be even smaller.

As always, most of the citizens who decided at this time, completely by chance on the eve of the primaries, that they could not live without a Labor Party membership card, were kibbutz women, Arabs, moshavniks and Druze women. There has been no hint of the membership drive on the billboards on the outskirts of cities and in the advertising departments of different newspapers.

The campaign to expand the ranks of the Labor Party was conducted in secret. Cabel explains that the meager fistful he received as a legacy was not enough to hold a reasonable membership drive. Thus, as always, the "field" remains in the hands of the voting contractors. They have neither the time nor the money to go door-to-door in Ramat Aviv. It is far more convenient to clinch the matter with the kibbutz secretary and shake hands with the head of the clan. Peretz's hacks will send Minister (for the moment without portfolio) Ghaleb Majadele to provide the goods from the Arab locales. Barak will send National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer to remind the Druze that Peretz preferred the Muslim Majadele to their Druze colleague Shakib Shanan, who at the last minute remained outside the Knesset. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon will draw the moshavniks, and Ami Ayalon's activists will remind the kibbutzniks that he was once one of them.

In these sectors there are more than 30,000 party members. In a democracy like this it is not only size that is crucial - discipline is just as important. Instead of wasting time on grassroots activism in the Carmel, it is better to send MK Orit Noked to a kibbutz in the Negev and to get Simhon to contact a moshav in the Galilee. The Labor Party's problem, and that of its members in these sectors, is the loose connection between the influence of the internal elections on the party and their contribution to the general elections. The kibbutzim and the moshavim, the Arab locales and the Druze locales contributed one quarter of the party's seats in the Knesset. Of the half a million eligible voters in the Arab sector, 27,000 voted for Labor. Of more than 200,000 eligible voters in the moshavim, only 13,000 gave their votes to the party. From the Druze, Labor received less than half a Knesset seat and slightly more than one Knesset seat was won from the influential kibbutz sector.

An important party in Israel is, therefore, ruled by interest groups that do not represent its voters. Cabel says he is aware of the chronic phenomenon of a lack of proportion between the size of the voting sectors and their party numbers. He promises that after the primaries he will look for a way to repair this distortion.

Arad and the Golan

Prof. Uzi Arad of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the former diplomatic adviser to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has a special interest in the latest reports of secret meetings between important people from Israel and the Syrian-American go-between Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, under the auspices of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. First of all, Suleiman was invited to appear at the Herzliya Conference and in the wake of the ruckus (upon the revelation of the secret channel), he was deterred at the last minute and stayed home.

Secondly, Arad participated in the first meetings with Suleiman along with Dr. Alon Liel, and abandoned them with a slam of the door after making harsh comments to his Israeli colleague. "My involvement was truncated," Arad wishes to stress. "In 2004, I was with Liel at a meeting at the home of the Turkish ambassador to Israel and after that I participated in two meetings in Switzerland. After the second meeting, when I realized which way things were going, I left in anger and in protest."

Arad first met Suleiman many years ago, but did not use him as liaison to former Syrian president Hafez Assad's regime. This time he tried and got burned. He has no complaint against the Syrian representative, or the Swiss diplomat.

"Both of them are people with good intentions," says Arad. "My complaints were directed at Liel. I noted to Suleiman and the Swiss diplomat, Nicholas Lang, that the positions he was expressing were utterly contrary to the policy of the government in power and of senior security elements. The government at that time, headed by Ariel Sharon, saw Syria as a negative factor that was acting in Iraq against the United States and maintaining connections with Hamas and Hezbollah. Their positions on the subject of a possible agreement were known, but Liel transmitted messages to Syria that were hymns of the radical left."

Arad says he warned Liel that he was, through Suleiman, giving the Syrians the impression that his positions represented Israel's official line and that he was coordinating with the authorities. He accused the retired director general of the Foreign Ministry of representing a "defeatist line" and of surrendering without recompense to every Syrian demand, conceding Israeli interests. Jeff Aaronson, the American peace activist who participated in the meetings, did not come out clean either. "I pointed out to him, too, that as an American citizen, he was acting against his country's policy that refrains from contact with Syria," says Arad.

And what positions did Arad present at the meetings? "I said that Israel would forever remain in the Golan Heights, on the Hermon and in a security belt of several kilometers to the east of the water line, from the Hermon to Al Hama, parallel to the water line. This territory includes Katzrin and most of the locales inside this belt, as well as the cliffs and the controlling ridges. Suleiman negated this position, but in response presented willingness to establish a park in the security belt. This was a relaxing of a previous Syrian demand." Liel responded: "Arad's claims are ridiculous and nasty. I left my position as director general of the Foreign Ministry in April 2001, and no one around the discussion table believed that I was representing any official factor. In order to dispel any doubt, I repeatedly stressed at each of the meetings that I was representing only myself and this can easily be checked with the other participants in the discussions."

Aaronson confirms that at no stage did Liel claim to be representing anyone other than himself. He says, "Liel constantly stressed that in an unofficial way he was briefing official elements in Israel about the meetings." Aaronson cites the following statement from the minutes of the first meeting, which was held in Switzerland in September 2004: "Alon (Liel) comments that he is here in an unofficial capacity, but I want the official echelon to know about the discussions in general terms." As for the charges directed against him, Aaronson replied that it is in the nature of meetings of this sort that they do not conform to the governments' official policies, and to a certain extent they contradict these policies.

Arens and the tree

Professor Yigal Arens fell very far from the tree. The son of a former defense minister and head of the Likud, he went so far to the left that a respected university in Israel cancelled his participation in a scientific conference.

Dr. Bracha Shapira of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, one of the organizers of the conference, has stated that the organizers have chosen to remain silent. Arens, who immigrated many years ago to California, heads two centers that deal with information systems on matters of intelligence, the war against terror and digital government.

At the beginning of January a colleague, an American professor, invited him to participate in a working group that will convene this coming summer at Ben-Gurion University. The conference, which is funded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), will deal with the role played by the Internet in terror and its prevention. The colleague said that the organizers, and among them Shapira, would be very glad if Arens accepted the invitation.

Five days later, before Arens replied to the invitation, his American colleague informed him that he should forget the whole thing. He related that the Israeli organizers had told him that government personnel who had been invited to the meeting would not feel comfortable in his presence. Arens sent an e-mail to Shapira and asked that she explain the withdrawal of the invitation. She replied that his American colleague had "exceeded his authority in extending the invitation without full consultation with the conference organizers."

According to Arens, the organizers had been aware initially of his political background. They learned about it from his American colleague who wanted to make certain, at Arens' request, that they would spare him any unpleasantness, which according to him had been his lot at previous conferences in Israel.

The organizers of a conference at an academic institution that benefits from public monies do not believe it is the public's right to know whether there is anything of substance in the grave suspicion that a scientists' political opinions disqualify him from entering their gates. Arens, in fact, concealed nothing. For many years he has supported two states for two peoples, but today he fears "that a two-state solution is no longer practically possible."

Arens believes that Israel should be a state for all its citizens, supports the right of return for Palestinian refugees and is opposed to any form of discrimination among citizens on the basis of their ethnic or religious background.