Head to Head / Former Minister Moshe Shahal, Why Are So Many Labor Candidates Battling to Head a Shattered Party?

'They recognize an opportunity and understand that the Labor brand is still worth something, that it is missed in Israeli politics.'

Moshe Shahal, who served as a Labor Party minister in several governments, and was considered close to Shimon Peres, stuck with the party in tough times. Attorney Shahal also advised the Likud's Ehud Olmert until he grew disappointed by him. These days, with the abundance of candidates to head Labor - MKs Shelly Yachimovich, Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz and apparently also former party chairman Amram Mitzna - he believes the Labor brand has not uttered its last words.

Moshe Shahal, do you have a logical explanation for why three announced and one potential candidate - all of them respected and accomplished politicians - are battling to head a shattered party, a party the polls predict will garner only seven Knesset seats in the next elections?

They recognize an opportunity and understand that the Labor brand is still worth something, that it is missed in Israeli politics. Something has happened, at first imperceptibly; the longing to return to the rational thinking that Labor and its leaders, Ben-Gurion foremost, represented. A conception that held that compromise was necessary, as opposed to the Revisionist idea, which refused it. We had the luck in the first years that the overwhelming majority supported Ben-Gurion's idea, and agreed to go with the Partition Plan. This concept also provided hope in the days of the Rabin government and the Oslo Accords, which were never completed. This concept has disappeared - not a little because of Ehud Barak, who declared after Camp David that "there is no one to talk to.

Barak administered a fatal blow to the idea that had accompanied us since I was a young soldier, that there is a chance for peace, and damaged the left's importance. Afterward, when he was chosen [prime minister] again, the wound deepened. I, too, am guilty because I supported him as the way out of a desperate situation, and it turned out that he did not take any principles into account, and entered into a government with [rightist Avigdor] Lieberman, a government that will not accept any compromise.

When Barak left [the party], the stone weighing down the party was lifted. Barak had, after all, crushed the party, and then a situation was created to return to the old idea that was missed by the greater public. There's no doubt that after Barak's exit, the Labor brand is still in demand.

So Barak both administered a fatal blow to the party and by leaving brought about its rehabilitation?

Definitely. His leaving brought on a renaissance. You could feel it. It's the reason that Peretz remained. A few days before Barak's resignation, Peretz said to me that he had no option but to leave the party. The situation was desperate. The party was dead. It didn't exist. What made people change their position was the stream of people joining the party after Barak left. I'm not kidding myself that Labor will return to power immediately, but if the candidates are smart and do what is required - create a vision which is a worldview and an ideology that does not compromise over a seat - there is a chance of recovery.

Was there a moment when you thought that this is it, the story is over?

There was a stage like that, when Barak entered Netanyahu's government with Lieberman. In my worst nightmare, I never imagined that such a possibility could exist. The night before [he announced his] decision, Barak told me that there was no choice but to join the opposition, and I told him it wasn't much of a decree - I already was in the opposition. And the next day, he sold everything and entered [the government]. Then, I thought, the party is dead. Because a party that gives up its honor does not deserve to exist.

So, against all odds, things are going to get interesting in the Labor Party?

Absolutely. After many years of empty, superficial talk, for the first time, there is going to be a personal battle expressing itself in terms of ideology. The Labor Party cannot be freed of its responsibility for what happened here - on the international scene, in legislation, in the Knesset, by sitting in all the governments. Now, it's been given a pardon by Ehud Barak, and it is a historic opportunity to regain its honor. If it acts properly.

Do you see a chance of bringing young people in?

The entry of Amram Mitzna and the three other candidates, who all have a worldview, definitely changes the picture. All the candidates are worthy, though none of us is perfect. It's important that they bring ideology with them, and not just idle talk and pomposity.

If the party manages with great courage to tell the public the truth, and aspires to greater equality, speaking bravely and honestly about government corruption, and concerning itself with Israeli Arabs, there is a chance to rebuild.

There is the advantage that all four are aware of the weakness in the absence of a formulated ideology, and so the public is waiting to hear rational stands and are tired of slogans. It should be a party that stands up to the right wing.

But Kadima fills that space.

I do not rule out that in order to create an alternative, perhaps we should join a front with Kadima. In such a front, Kadima would be the main stockholder, because there is no argument that Labor has ceased to be the second major factor in politics.

In September, there is going to be an international situation over which we have no control. The bomb is in the air - international recognition of the Palestinian state by 130 countries. And the Labor Party must speak out courageously and bring the public to support it. If the party can form a united front after elections for a chairman, I believe the attitude in the polls will not be late in following.

Labor has suffered more than any other party from internal squabbles. An entire generation, my generation, was wiped out because of 20 years of dealings between Rabin and Peres, two people who captured the stage and would not allow anyone else to enter. The party needs a group of young people in the leadership, and this it has.

What constitutes success in terms of the number of Knesset mandates?

If we can return to 13 mandates - the number in the last elections - it will be an accomplishment, part of the rehabilitation process.

The Labor Party can once again offer an alternative?

One round of elections will not be enough. The reality imposed on us means that people will want to hear a rational voice, and not a harsh one, and this will be the party's opportunity.

Will you help out?

Absolutely, yes. For my conscience. In my eyes, this time, it's a fight for our home.

In view of the recent Wikileaks, you won't be able to bury the ethnic issue.

The ethnic issue? In this case, silence is best.

Will you support any of the candidates for Labor Party chairman?

I still haven't decided. But I will before the end. I haven't got any reason to hem and haw.