The Real Primaries: Fuad vs. Ghaleb

Ami Ayalon knew he had a problem with Arabs before the Labor Party polling places opened, and not only because they aren't crazy about Israel Defense Force reserve generals and former leaders of the Shin Bet security service. A former prime minister, Lieutenant General Ehud Barak also failed to leave them with a taste for more.

Ayalon learned from local canvassers that neither candidate is interested what is called "The Sector." His agreement with Sari Nusseibeh does nothing to raise his capital in the eyes of most Arab Labor Party members, and bitter memories of October 2000 do not decrease Barak's value.

The race for the Arab vote focused on two other politicians: Minister Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer and Minister Ghaleb Majadele. The former was a member of the Barak camp, this time around, while his opponent forged a bond with Amir Peretz. The front-running candidates (Barak, Ayalon, and Peretz) and the others (Ophir Pines-Paz and Danny Yatom) were virtually irrelevant in this battle.

In these conditions Arab precincts became a special challenge for "vote contractors," who worked on behalf of Barak and Peretz. For Ben-Eliezer, victory in Galilee villages and towns in the Triangle is the dowry he needs to stand with Barak under the wedding canopy.

For Majadele, the first Arab minister, defeat in Taibeh at the hands of Fuad, a former military administrator and reserve brigadier general, would be like Beitar Jerusalem losing to Hapoel Umm al-Fahm in the state cup final at Teddy Stadium.

The deadlock in Arab polling stations (34 percent for Peretz, 33 percent for Barak, and less than 12 percent for Ayalon), which granted Barak an advantage in the first round of voting, made the second round Majadele's golden opportunity to settle accounts with Fuad. Constituents of the science, technology, culture, and sports minister say they heard from him that Peretz will have to exert tremendous effort to persuade him to work on behalf of Barak - in other words, to collaborate with Fuad.

Majadele is not entirely convinced that, after all the bad blood between them in the first round, his people will not disobey orders. How will he look if Peretz closes a deal with Barak and the Arabs hand a victory to his opponent? On the other hand, a victory by Ayalon, who threatens to dismantle the government, could mean a major loss to Minister Majadele and the precincts he represents.

It took the Arabs 60 years to get a foothold in the cabinet. A Likud government would make that achievement a curiosity. Majadele accepted Ayalon's invitation last Saturday, on the eve of the primary, for a morning walk on the beach. He left no doubt in Ayalon's mind as to whom he would prefer Peretz to entrust with the keys to the party. He noted that Ayalon's sworn supporters, kibbutz members, preferred to sit beside Olmert in the coalition rather than with left-wing Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. "Don't be [Amram] Mitzna, the sequel," warned Majadele. "It's very important to preserve principles, but politics calls for pragmatism." They parted with a warm handshake and agreed to meet again after May 28.

Majadele is not the only one wanting to teach the veteran mariner a lesson or two. Lesson one: The captain of Labor is the central committee. A majority in the primaries without control of the committee, now in the hands of the Barak and Peretz camps, leaves no wind in the sails. Lesson two: The central committee usually prefers second place at the cabinet bow to first place in the Knesset stern. This rule is particularly valid in relation to ministers and MKs, like Peretz and his constituency.

After he recites these important rules, and if he wins the second round, Ayalon will have to find a way to leave the party a seat at the table while keeping his personal integrity intact. How can he do this in face of his explicit promises that the party will not sit in Olmert's government?

In one internal party dialogue, Ayalon said that someone should point a gun at Kadima and announce they must choose to replace Olmert with one of their own or replace him with Netanyahu. In other words, call for early elections. The audience cared little for his tone or his statement's content.

"How can we interfere in internal Kadima matters when we demand that they do not interfere in our own?" implored one Labor minister.

Labor figures noted that as time passes, public protest grows over the government's mishandling of the war in Lebanon. Indeed, this week, Olmert and his friend, Minister Roni Bar-On, permitted themselves more than covert nibbling on the Winograd Committee's findings. They took a conspicuous bite.

Apparently Ayalon has internalized that the option of Olmert's handing the reins to Tzipi Livni or another Kadima candidate is not viable for now. For Ayalon, the emphasis is on "for now." Yesterday morning he said that the question of the date on which cooperation with Olmert will be canceled is a "tactical question." As far as he is concerned, the declaration can wait for the final publication of the Winograd Committee report. Prevailing political opinion maintains that summer and the High Holidays will prevent that from taking place before the middle of October. Until then, anything can happen.

According to the prevailing scenario, if Ayalon wins the second round, with the help of Peretz, he will leave Peretz, for now, in the Defense Ministry and concentrate on his own standing in the party, including promotion of a move to elect a new central comittee.

If the final Winograd report permits Labor and other coalition partners to tolerate Olmert's presence, Ayalon will convene the central committee and request its support to appoint him minister of defense in place of Peretz. That will be the easy part. The problem will be to free up room for Peretz in the cabinet.

The outgoing party chair does not insist on the Finance Ministry. In fact, he did not believe for a minute that Olmert would let go of it. Thus, either the incoming Labor chief, be it Barak or Ayalon, will relinquish one of those two ministries, or Peretz will "relinquish" the Finance Ministry in favor of an honorable, socioeconomic portfolio. (If Shimon Peres is elected president, Peretz may also be honored to receive the "vice premiership".)

In order to put Ayalon in the government and find a place for Amir Peretz, and also Professor Avishay Braverman, the Labor Party Central Committee will be forced to behave like contestants in one of those heartless, reality TV shows who vote on who will leave the island. The proximity to the exit will be directly proportional to the proximity to Barak. In a situation like that, Fuad, Isaac ("Boojie") Herzog and Shalom Simhon have cause for concern.

Ehud Barak's victory in the first round teaches us that a major portion of the public bought his take on negotiations with Yasser Arafat, which ended in failure and led to the second intifada. According to that version of events, Barak knew throughout the negotiations that Arafat was not a partner to a two-state agreement. He also knew that Arafat was planning to unilaterally declare an independent state and preparing for violent confrontation with Israel. He claims that the decision to go to Camp David in the summer of 2000 and to present his generous offer to the Palestinians only intended to ensure that Israel entered that violent confrontation with the broadest possible international support. In other words, Barak took the blow for the State of Israel.

Despite that, in January 2001, several months after his predictions were realized and the intifada was already in full swing, Barak dispatched four ministers to Taba to continue negotiations where he left off. He explains that no negotiations took place in Taba, and that the meeting was merely planned to expose Arafat's true face to the left wing so it, too, would know that there was no Palestinian partner for a compromise.

Yet Barak said this week that one of those ministers, Yossi Sarid, then chairman of Meretz, learned first-hand that Arafat was not interested in a two-state solution. Barak maintains that when Sarid returned from Taba, he told him, "Now I understand that Arafat wants my home in Sheikh Munis [a former Arab village located at the present site of the Ramat Aviv neighborhood in Tel Aviv]."

Because Barak refuses to be interviewed, there is no choice but to ask Sarid. He responds, "First of all, I live in the Lamed section [of Ramat Aviv] - not in [the former site of] Sheikh Munis. Second, I never told Barak or anyone else that Arafat is not a partner. Third, I did not know that I and former-ministers Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak were used as tools to remove a mask. I forgive the damage to my own honor but one must ask if President Clinton was also a partner in the scheme or if, for some reason, he was unaware that Barak dragged him into negotiations to expose the face of Arafat. Fourth, I fully remember my conversation with Barak, on the eve of his departure for Camp David, in which I suggested that he delay the summit because the gaps were too big. His answer was, 'You'll see that we reach an agreement. I have an unprecedented proposal. As soon as I lay it on the table, it will all be over.'"