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Shrinking Confidence

Labor's public bloodletting shows peace camp in disarray.

by David Landau

March 1, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres makes a passionate plea for the Labor Party to join a national unity government.  AFP photo

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres makes a passionate plea for the Labor Party to join a national unity government. AFP photo

The public bloodletting that the Labor Party presented to the Israeli public this week has exposed the depth of disarray and confusion on the Israeli left following Prime Minister Ehud Barak's massive defeat at the polls.

Labor's Central Committee ultimately voted by a 2-1 margin Monday to join Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon's proposed national unity government.

But the margin masks the magnitude of division within Labor about the proper course of action for a party that, until the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada five months ago, was convinced that its path as the standard-bearer of Israel's peace camp was the correct one.

Farther to the left, the Meretz Party also is in disarray.

Barak, the man who sought to lead Labor into a unity government until he realized the extent of his colleagues' loathing, didn't even bother to attend Monday's raucous Central Committee meeting.

Much as the septuagenarian Sharon stepped in to resuscitate the ailing Likud after Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat in 1999, it was left to party elder Shimon Peres, 78, to swing Laborites to his vision of the party's role.

In arguing passionately for a unity government, Peres faced down Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Knesset faction chair Ofir Pines-Paz, all of whom argued that Labor was in effect selling its soul to join Sharon.

Peres castigated the doves for being "out of touch" with the people and assured the party that the great majority of the public wants a unity government.

"The time has come to listen to the nation for once," Peres said in a plea for unity, as supporters clapped and hecklers booed. "For once, listen to the will of the nation."

Labor would emerge strengthened from a period in the unity government, Peres argued; in opposition, it would do little but make speeches during a period of national crisis.

Beilin, Peres's political protege and one of the main opponents of a unity government, said Labor's only purpose would be to extend the life of an ill-fated coalition under Sharon.

"Shimon, I love you, but listening to your remarks, I want to cry," Beilin said.

As the dust settled on Tuesday, Beilin warned that Sharon could not count on unified support from Labor members in important Knesset votes.

"Sharon has to know that there will be Knesset members who won't be able to support him," Beilin told Israel's Army Radio. "He is getting only a part of the Labor Party."

Yet what the opponents of unitydidn't say at Monday's meeting was as telling as what they did.

More important than the abuse and recrimination hurled around the hall was the fact that the losers in the struggle made no threat to split the party.

Immediately after Sharon's huge election victory on Feb. 6, Beilin began an open flirtation with Meretz leader Sarid, with his eye on fashioning a new social democratic party from the bulk of Meretz's membership and Labor breakaways.

The assumption was that Labor's accession to a unity government -- presumably, at that time, under the defeated Barak -- would trigger a sizable breakaway movement. But on Monday, it was painfully clear to the doves that any split would be of discouragingly modest proportions.

Indeed, Meretz also seems in no shape for new political adventures. Sarid has been strongly criticized within the party for his decision a month before the election not to support Peres' bid to run for premier.

With polls at the time showing Peres giving Sharon a neck-and-neck race, Peres had sought the support of Meretz's 10 Knesset members -- the minimum number required to back a candidacy -- to present his own, alternative candidacy from the left.

Sarid's decision effectively enshrined Barak -- who was trailing massively in the polls -- as the peace camp's candidate.

Now there are some in Meretz who believe Sarid, too, should resign as party leader.

There even are a few voices in Meretz that favor joining Sharon's unity coalition, if the prime minister-elect agrees to leave out the far-right party led by politicians Avigdor Lieberman and Rehavam Ze'evi.

To some on the left, these currents in Labor and Meretz reflect how severely the Israeli peace camp has lost its sense of confidence -- and, some would say, its direction.

This is due not only to Barak's massive electoral defeat. Rather, it is the bleak realization that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority rejected a peace package presented by Barak and President Clinton that represented Israel's ultimate red line.

While many suggest the package could have been presented more sensitively and gracefully, Israeli peaceniks don't see what more of substance could have been offered.

In any case, Arafat's response was a low-level war that exploded the world view the peace camp has carefully nurtured since the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn that set the peace process in motion.

The left in Israel is now so discomfited that it doesn't have the strength to split, regroup and launch a new and more homogenous peace party.

While some aspirants for Labor's leadership are competing for the party's eight ministerial slots in the unity government, Labor doves are refusing to serve in Sharon's Cabinet.

They can now devote all their energies to the looming battle for party leadership.

One of those doves, Burg, hopes to turn the widespread dismay in the party to his advantage in the leadership primaries.

Others, including, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, outgoing communications minister, hopes a ministerial position in Sharon's Cabinet will help his bid to become Labor leader.

If Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh is nominated for defense minister by Labor's Central Committee, that will certainly whet his appetite for a leadership bid.

Other possible candidates for party leader are Ben-Ami -- who still insists that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was just around the corner -- and Haim Ramon, who favors a unity government but has taken himself out of the running for Sharon's Cabinet.

Both will be watching reaction to the unwieldy and heterogeneous unity government before deciding whether to compete for Labor leader.

Peres, who on Monday ridiculed Ben-Ami's contention that a peace deal was at hand, is likely to become interim party leader, but has said he does not want the job on a permanent basis.

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