St. Haim and Limor, Our Lady of Graciousness

Last week a letter of greetings for the holiday from Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon landed in the mail boxes of about 20,000 members the Labor Party, those who are over the age of 60. This was not a greeting card, like the one sent by Ehud Barak, for example. This was a proper letter, a page and a half in long, in which Ramon details Labor's achievements in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, attacks Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his cruelty to the elderly and promises to continue to fight: for another withdrawal and for pensioners' rights. More correctly, in the opposite order: first the pensioners and then disengagements No. 2 and 3.

"I have begun to act to achieve a big improvement in the situation of many thousands who are entitled to state pensions and have not received them or have not received their full value," Ramon informs the retirees, "but our presence in the government has been and will be full of difficult ideological and practical struggles with Netanyahu's economy and his economic philosophy."

During the past three months, since the Labor Party joined the government, Ramon has been serving as liaison minister between pensioners and "our ministers." He was appointed by party chairman Vice Premier Shimon Peres. Ramon and the pensioners?! This is as though Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev were serving as liaison with the gay and lesbian community, or as though Moledet MK Benny Elon of Moledet were appointed responsible for the Arab sector. However, image is one thing and political reality is another.

The connection between Ramon and the pensioners began before the meeting of the Labor Party Central Committee that chose the party's ministers. Ramon realized that without the pensioners' support he was liable to remain outside the disengagement government, the government of his dreams. He decided to extend a hand of peace to to the most important power group in the central committee, which for 15 years loathed him the way he loathed them. The mediators were Peres and Histadrut labor federation chairman Amir Peretz. In their presence a meeting was held between Ramon and the chairman of the Labor pensioners, Gidon Ben Yisrael. Ramon promised loyalty. Ben Yisrael promised votes.

With the pensioners' help Ramon managed to make it onto the list and since then, as noted, he has been their man in the government. The devoted attention and energy that Ramon is giving to the pensioners can be interpreted in two ways: Either he intends to embark on a nursing career after he resigns from politics, or he is planning to run for the chairmanship of the Labor Party again. Ramon is leaning toward the second of these possibilities. His original plan was to have Labor primaries postponed from June to November, and then to enter the race, on the assumption that Peres would not be in the picture and the grateful pensioners would support him. But when Ramon found out that none of the five candidates wants to go public in support of the postponement, he decided that he wasn't playing. "I'm not prepared to be the village idiot," he explained. Therefore, if the primaries are not postponed, Ramon will wait for the next round. In the Labor Party there is always a next round on the horizon.

Contrary to current thinking in the party, Peres, who will soon be 82, is running. He could not have been elected pope; the Vatican's constitution prohibits anyone over the age of 80 from being a candidate. But being minister at the age of 83 is fine. It is much harder to conduct a weekly Mass in Saint Peter's Square than it is to head the government of the most demanding country in the world. Peres is encouraged by surveys among registered Labor members in which he has been beating any of the other candidates in the second round. One such survey was placed on Peres' desk recently. First place: Peres. Trailing him, with a difference of about 6 percent, are Amir Peretz and MK Matan Vilnai, neck-and-neck, and in fifth place National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer with about 6 percent support. The survey was conducted according to the current list of registered party members, about 50,000 people. It reflects neither the recent massive membership drive that Peretz conducted among the Druze and the Arabs nor Ben-Eliezer's intensive membership drive among employees of the Israel Electric Corporation, the Mekorot water company and the Oil Refineries, nor the activity by the other contenders prior to the closing of membership registration on May 15.

According to the survey, if Fuad (Ben-Eliezer) withdraws his candidacy and calls upon his supporters to vote for Barak, the gap between Peres and Barak closes and the two of them go on to the second round. In the second round Peres defeats anyone who runs against him, by at least around 10 percent. If Ben-Eliezer persists, and he has no reason not to, Barak could tumble to third place and Peres and Vilnai will enter the second round, or Peres and Peretz.

At the moment, both of the latter are declaring that they will run till the end, but in private conversations Peres has been saying that Peretz will concede and call upon his people to vote for Shimon, and Peretz believes that Peres will concede and call upon his people: Go with Amir.

Peres does not have a serious campaign team working the field. As of now, he does not have an organizational infrastructure. His race is being conducted mainly in the media. Barak, however, is convinced that at "the moment of truth," the voters will realize that he is the only living person who has defeated the Likud and brought the party into power, and that he and only he can do this again.

Everything is provisional, of course. Everything is likely to change many times over up to the crucial day. If, for example, the Labor Party Central Committee, which convenes tomorrow, accepts Fuad's position and eliminates the collective voter registration in the kibbutzim, Vilnai and Barak will suffer a severe blow. At present, of the 50,000 registered party members, 12,000 are kibbutz members. Cancellation of the collective registration (through the kibbutz secretary) will lead, it's believed, to a drop of 50 percent in the number of kibbutzniks who are party members. Barak and Vilnai have good reason to worry: The kibbutzim always vote for Ashkenazim.

Livnat the gracious

God, it is said, is to be found in the small details. And sometimes the paid announcements in the newspapers inform and enrich the soul of the reader more than the articles labored on by the best journalists.

One such advertisement appeared on the weekend Maariv as part of a collection of advertisements that dealt with the celebrations of Mimouna, the holiday of the Moroccan community. "Limor Livnat - Worthy of Moroccan Jewry," screamed the heading in red letters. Readers were informed that the minister of education and culture had been chosen by the "Worthy of Moroccan Jewry Selection Committee" as the person honored by the ethnic group. There is nothing remarkable about this. Ministers and elected officials are sometimes forced to accept one title or another, however silly and empty of content. It doesn't hurt anyone, neither the bestower nor the recipient. Anyone who did not make do with this heart-warming headline and the photo of of glowing Minister Livnat could read the reasons stated for the committee's choice - a treasure of gooey superlatives, oiled and sugared, in obsequious, submissive Disapora language. All the Moroccan jokes in the world could not have served the ethnic group as poorly as this toadying concoction. Some examples: "Her estimable (misspelled in the original) efforts to improve, to increase the resources for education, culture and sport and to carry out important reforms in these systems are in the spirit of the times." Nu, really. During Livnat's four years at the ministry its budget has been cut 15 times by something between NIS 3 billion and NIS 4 billion. The main victims of this creeping cut have been the development towns and the needy.

"Her esteem for the efforts of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry and its projects." What? What does this mean? "Her gracious manners, her public appearances that arouse respect and her good and benevolent attitude toward people are among the characteristics of her personality." Livnat and gracious manners? Livnat and a good and benevolent attitude? Aren't we talking here about the most brutal and aggressive politician we have? After all, she once slapped a leftist activist who annoyed her. Even Sharon prefers not to tangle with her.

"And above all," concludes the writer, "despite her public achievements and her having reached greatness, her heart has not becoming haughty nor have her eyes lifted high."

Twelve members of the committee appended their signatures to this thrilling document and at their head, Dr. Yehuda Lancry, the committee chairman. Lancry, a man of gracious manners, a former ambassador whose speech is far from pomposity, sounded on Saturday evening like someone who feels very uncomfortable about the matter. "The person who formulated it is Sam Ben-Sheetrit (the chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry - Y.V.)," says Lancry. "His language generally glorifies and magnifies those people he wishes to honor. I've told him that sometimes it is necessary to moderate this picturesque style."

Is there no limit?

"Look," says Lancry, "there are some statements that are definitely correct. Like the important reform that the minister is leading, which also advances the heritage of Moroccan Jewry. As for the other characteristics, one characteristic or another isn't the main point. When you're given a whole like this, is it necessary to go into petty detail?"