So What if I'm Not a General?

On the eve of the seventh night of Passover, from his Tel Aviv campaign headquarters, MK Ophir Pines-Paz moved to get Labor Party Central Committee members to sign a request for the committee to meet and discuss ending the coalition partnership with Kadima. This move is intended to shake up the campaign of Pines-Paz, one of five candidates running in the primary race for the Labor Party leadership. This race is taking place in the shadows of the main race between MK Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

This effort is also intended to impose an agenda on his fellow contenders, primarily Barak and Ayalon, and also weaken Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. Pines-Paz seeks to push Ayalon and Barak into a corner and force them to make specific statements in order to dispel the convenient vagueness surrounding the fate of the coalition partnership with Olmert after May 28, the date of the primaries.

If they oppose his request to dismantle the partnership with Olmert, Pines-Paz will portray them as the ones who are paving the way for MK Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party to the government. "If they join Olmert, they need to know that they are part of the failing government of Olmert and [Abraham] Hirchson, that they are destroying the Labor Party's option to present an alternative government," says Pines-Paz, explaining what is becoming the central message of his campaign for the party leadership. The objective he has set his sights on is Olmert's downfall.

Pines-Paz is willing to cooperate with a different Kadima candidate to ward off early elections. In the meantime, the polls do not indicate he will make it to the second round in the primaries. He is stuck behind Ayalon and Barak, next to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and is therefore trying to add a new dimension to his campaign. He has even declared "the transformation of the Labor Party into an alternative government" and "removing it from the government is a no less important mission than my personal victory. It's a strategic matter and no less important than the primaries. Replacing Peretz and staying in the Olmert government is like handing the government over to Bibi [Netanyahu] on a silver platter."

Pines-Paz knows that this is a battle against the centrist stream, Barak and Ayalon, who understand that this is a failed government. But each of them, says Pines-Paz, is interested in a position in the government to prepare himself for the race for the prime minister's seat. "Ami [Ayalon]," explains Pines-Paz, "has to prove he has ministerial experience, and Barak wants to return to the prime minister's seat via the Defense Ministry."

Around 200 signatures are needed according to the Labor Party constitution to convene the central committee. Pines-Paz estimates that within a few days, he'll get them, and will force it to convene between the publication of the Winograd Committee's findings and the date of the primaries.

Even if a loss is likely, he believes he will set the agenda and force everyone to reconsider the partnership with Olmert, which he refers to as "a political graveyard" ever since Yisrael Beiteinu joined it.

"I'll get the Labor Party out of the government if I'm elected," says Pines-Paz, "but the vagueness of Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak is something unbearable and unfitting. It's their obligation to the constituency."

He warns that it is unadvisable for Ayalon and Barak to be impressed by Olmert's broad coalition, because "there is a huge gap between the broad confidence in the Knesset and the lack of confidence among the public. That means the Knesset is shutting its ears to the public mood and if the Knesset is unable to bring down a government and create a different alternative, we may witness an extra-parliamentary tsunami that washes over the whole political scene and perhaps the whole democracy as well. With all the power that Israeli democracy has, and it has power, we may witness some very difficult things that have occurred in quite a few countries."

Five months after leaving the coalition, following the entry of Yisrael Beiteinu and announcing he would run for the party leadership, Pines-Paz has not managed to translate this step into substantial support among central committee members. He has support among young party members and Arabs, but is not managing to reach larger segments in the kibbutzim. Several days ago, Peretz acknowledged that his biggest mistake was agreeing to Avigdor Lieberman's joining the government.

Pines-Paz sought to be a leadership alternative and lead the generational change in the party, but found that none of the faction members were rallying around him. Ministers Isaac Herzog, Shalom Simhon and Eitan Cabel, who were marked as leaders of the "young revolution" in the Labor Party, preferred to remain under Barak's auspices.

"It hurts me," says Pines-Paz, "I hoped that some of the members would join me, especially the young [ones]. This race could have become a generational fight. There is an important message in a party renewing itself from within and not bringing in reinforcements. Their main argument is that the public wants generals in the wake of the war. This is a quality group, but they don't have the inner strength to support me.

"I'm paying a certain price due to the post-war trauma," he continues. "I'm not against generals, but I don't think that they have all the answers. There is a sense here of a lack of confidence among the public. I'm paying, ironically enough, and paradoxically, the price of Olmert and Peretz's failure. People want to return to the era of the generals, and in this sense the timing is not easy on my campaign.

"Barak is a person who got a great opportunity from the public and wasted it in a big way. Choosing Ami [Ayalon] is a wild gamble. You don't know whom you're electing. You have someone who was in politics and has confidence in his ability to serve as party leader and prime minister. It's very problematic. Politics is a profession and not a moonlighting job or second career."

He also says there is no doubt Peretz cannot be the leader of the Labor Party, "and it's clear to me as well that he will not be."

Pines-Paz is a desirable objective for Barak and Ayalon. Barak is certain that his natural place is with him, together with his core group. Through his associates, Barak recently conveyed the message to Pines-Paz that he would be his candidate for justice minister - this would be a condition he would present to Olmert. Pines-Paz referred to this as spin. "I informed him that I'm not willing to meet and I'm not meeting with any of the candidates. I intend to stay in the race until the end, and am taking into account that I won't make it into the second round. But until then, there is still time to make decisions."

Stuck with Hirchson

Trapped in a complex relationship with his political supporters, Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson and the leading candidate to replace him, MK Haim Ramon, Ehud Olmert again finds himself facing a problem. Ramon's being absolved from a crime of moral turpitude paves the way for his return to the government, perhaps to the Finance Ministry, but it's still a long way off. Even if Olmert estimates that Hirchson will have to resign soon from the Finance Ministry, he cannot appoint Ramon so quickly. He will have to wait until Ramon completes his 120 hours of community service at a Tel Mond horse ranch for special children. Ramon plans to begin in the coming days. A simple calculation shows that this will take at least a month (five hours a day on average, including a 45-day wait, the period during which the state prosecutor can appeal).

Hirchson remaining in the Finance Ministry is actually convenient for Olmert, despite the damage it is causing him and Kadima. Olmert needs this time, which will bring him right up to the Labor Party primaries. In the meantime, he is stuck with Hirchson, with Ramon in a holding pattern, with pressures from Kadima ministers Roni Bar-On and Meir Sheetrit, who are interested in the Finance Ministry portfolio and with the nightmare that Peretz may accidentally win the Labor Party primary and demand the Finance Ministry.

Olmert is interested in Ramon's return but is careful of Hirchson's turf, who has been by his side for over 30 years. Those who know Olmert are convinced that he will not dare to ask "Avram" to resign. This is one of the closest and longest friendships in Israeli politics. Hirchson was the organizational engine for Olmert in all his campaigns in recent years. He is the man who keeps all of his political secrets. So, despite his great love for Ramon, Olmert will not now harm Hirchson.

On the meaning of this friendship from Olmert's side, one can also learn from his hasty Passover eve visit to the home of Shula Zaken, his bureau chief who was suspended due to her involvement in the Income Tax Authority scandal. Olmert arrived at her home in Jerusalem's Malha neighborhood with an impressive bouquet of flowers and spent a long time with her family.

In the blink of an eye and with dazzling skill, former Likud MKs Gila Gamliel, Ayoub Kra and Leah Nes sneaked up to the MKs' table at the Passover toast organized by Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. The three, who are threatening a comeback, did not hesitate to grab the empty seats of MKs who did not manage to attend the event, and so Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa'ar, Limor Livnat, Israel Katz and Yuval Steinitz got to experience a sort of reunion with the former MKs. Also mingling among the tables was another ex-MK: Daniel Ben-Lulu.

The group of former MKs in different compositions also circulated among the end of Passover Mimouna celebrations and, in effect, it is hard to ignore their presence in recent weeks at central party members' events. Gamliel is leading the parade. Ehud Yatom, a member of the former rebels' group, even went further at one of the faction meetings. In between, it is possible to find confessions of the ex-MKs in the papers, of their unceasing longing for the house of legislature that increases in direct proportion to the Likud's improvement in the standings.