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Israel’s Labour Party (almost) Chooses a New Leader

Yesterday’s first round of voting in the Israeli Labour Party’s primaries failed to produce a new leader. No candidate received the necessary 40% of the votes cast and a second ballot will now take place on June 11th between the top two candidates Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon. The results in the first round in which 65% of the party’s 103,568 members participated were as follows:

Ehud Barak – 35.6%
Ami Ayalon – 30.6%
Amir Peretz – 22.4%
Ophir Pines-Paz – 8%
Danny Yatom – 2.7%

Ehud Barak & Ami AyalonThe head to head between Barak and Ayalon hardly offers two dramatic and radical competing visions for the Israeli future. Both come from a military background and both have been cautious in their messaging not to over-rock the boat, but there are real differences. Barak has been running on a ticket of experience, having already served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001. He claims to be a safe pair of hands to lead the country in a time of war, which is an unfortunate indication of where he intends to take the region. Ayalon has marketed himself as Mr. Clean, suggesting that he represents a new style of politics that stands in contrast to the scandal-ridden current leadership. Ayalon has never held Ministerial office and this is being used against him. Ayalon’s counter-argument is that Barak may have reached the pinnacle of the political pyramid, but that he was a failed Prime Minister.

Barak is in many ways the father of unilateralism, having promoted the “no-partner” narrative following his electoral defeat to Ariel Sharon in February 2001. Ayalon largely rejected the unilateral mantra and notably launched a political initiative together with Palestinian professor, author, and activist Sari Nusseibeh, in which they produced a 6-point set of principles for Israeli-Palestinian peace, around which they then gathered the signatures of members of the Israeli and Palestinian publics. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles are quite decent and realistic and you can read them here. In general, Ami is being seen as the candidate who could most breathe new hope and life into the prospects for peace. Akiva Eldar, in this article, explains in more details the reason why.

There are also differences in their respective approaches to the current government and to serving in a coalition under Ehud Olmert. Barak has stated that he is willing to join the government, but would seek agreement on a date for new general elections. This would allow a new Olmert-Barak formation to avoid an immediate coalition crisis, even though the promised election date would create somewhat of a sort of Damocles situation. Ayalon, following the harsh report of the Winograd Commission into last summer’s Lebanon war, went on record that he would not enter a government led by Olmert. Ayalon has said that he is not opposed to being in a coalition with Kadima, but they would have to choose a new party leader other than Olmert. This currently appears unrealistic and it is a weak point in the Ayalon candidacy as most Labour members have little enthusiasm for collapsing the coalition and thus, precipitating early general elections. Of course both Barak and Ayalon could find a face saving formula if it comes to the political crunch and their positions on this political question are likely to be further prodded and tested for the duration of the primaries campaign.

Ironically, Amir Peretz having been ousted as King, now finds himself in the position of King-maker. The support of the Peretz party machine would probably be enough to push either Barak or Ayalon over the top in their run-off. Peretz has a deep seated hostility to Barak and the elitism he represents and he is leaning towards Ayalon. But the final word has not yet been spoken on this and Israeli politics makes for especially strange bedfellows.

In the bigger electoral picture, according to the polls, Ayalon poses a great threat to Likud leader Netanyahu. This was largely born out by yesterday’s primary first round results. Barak’s main support came from vote contractors and the support he received amongst the old guard of the party machine, as well as amongst the Arab and Druze communities – all of which are largely irrelevant to the Labour Party when it comes to general elections. Ayalon, by contrast, polled well where the election was genuine and genuinely competitive and where Labour needs to grow its strength in the general elections, notably in the large cities (Ayalon won Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa).

The Israeli Labour Party has a pronounced cannibalistic streak and tends to devour its own, especially promising new leaders. Barak would likely survive, but it is unlikely he will achieve much beyond that should he win the second round. If Ayalon is to succeed not only in two weeks, but also in repositioning Labour to be a driving force in Israeli politics, then he will need to build on the courage and daring which we have seen fleeting glimpses of to date.


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Comments (3)


Peretz will support Ayalon.


I agree, very helpful. And thank you for sharing the Akiva Eldar piece, also good analysis.


Great post! This was really helpful.

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Daniel Levy


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 29, 2007 8:12 PM.

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