Al-Ahram Weekly – 20 December 2001
The Labour Party — in its current guise and earlier incarnation as Mapai — has ruled Israel for most of the country’s 53 years. But, since Ehud Barak’s huge 25- point defeat in last February’s elections, ideological and political infighting has torn the party apart. Today there are almost as many separate voices in the party as there are Labour members in the Knesset.
The fate of Labour has been inextricably tied to the success of the peace process ever since its late leader Yitzhak Rabin declared his conversion to the cause of peace with the Palestinians at Oslo in 1993. Now with that process in tatters, the party is adrift and directionless as its traditional rival, Likud, rallies the Israeli public to a new cause, that of war.
Outwardly, Labour still has its hands on the reins of power through its two main ministers: Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defence Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer. But, in reality, neither man is able to counteract the increasingly right-wing and confrontational drift in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy towards Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority (PA).
Peres has been making plenty of noise about leaving the government since Sharon started his campaign against Arafat earlier this month. He walked out of the original cabinet meeting at which the PA was declared a “terror-supporting entity” and, days later, Labour handed over to the prime minister a list of government policies that violate the coalition agreement.
Then, this week, Peres drafted a letter complaining that he was being excluded from policy-making. “Recently there has been a feeling [in the Labour Party] that somebody wants to put an end to coalition unity and push Labour out of the government,” it said.
But Peres’s grievances are probably of less concern to Sharon than threats from the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction of extreme right-wing and religious parties to quit the government. They are demanding an even harsher line against the PA and have a history of being treacherous coalition partners.
In a sign of how unnerved the government is, Tourism Minister Benni Elon urged them this week to be patient, promising more aggressive policies to come. “We want the IDF [Israeli army] to begin confiscating weapons used against us, and get rid of signs of [Palestinian] sovereignty, but that will all come in due time,” he said.
Such talk by right-wing government ministers has done little to reassure Labour Members of Knesset (MK). The Knesset Speaker, Avraham Burg, recently said: “When the political line of [far-right ministers] Avigdor Lieberman and Benni Elon becomes the political line of the government, that is when Labour has no place in the government.”
The former justice minister, Yossi Beilin, has tried to raise the pressure on Peres too. This week he organised banners on the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv demanding that Labour leave the coalition. But both Peres and Ben Eliezer are reluctant, for different reasons, to listen to voices of dissent in their party.
Peres’s influence in the government largely derives from his international reputation as a Nobel peace laureate. When Sharon established the coalition, Peres was the perfect sticking plaster for concealing the blemish of the prime minister’s military past, particularly his role in the massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. So far, the foreign minister has provided a veneer of respectability to Israel’s hawkish policies as he shuttles between the Middle East, Europe and Washington.
Now, with Arafat, a fellow peace laureate, declared a supporter of terrorism and with Israel waging war on the PA, backed by American President George W Bush, Sharon has much less need of Peres or his discredited peace process. Peres, however, is desperately clinging to the unity government in an attempt to prevent his historical legacy as a peacemaker from being destroyed.
In contrast, Ben Eliezer has reinvented himself — and the Labour faction he leads — into a Likud-lite party. As defence minister, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Sharon in the collective punishment of Palestinians for attacks on Israel. He also backed the prime minister’s wide-scale military incursions into Palestinian- controlled Area A in the West Bank and Gaza following the killing of the tourism minister, Rahavam Zeevi, in October by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Where Ben Eliezer has distanced himself from Sharon is over the recent decision to undermine Arafat and the PA. But the disagreement is one of tone rather than substance.
More significantly, Ben Eliezer believes his high-profile defence portfolio is his ticket to leading Labour into the next election. He has, therefore, encouraged the view that leaving the government now would look like Labour deserting the nation in its hour of need.
He appears to be reading the general mood. A recent survey by Ben Gurion University in Beersheva showed that the Labour rank-and-file identified with Sharon’s approach and, following the failure of Oslo, were “embarrassed and reticent about taking part in public discourse, feeling like a chastised child who is told, ‘Go sit in the corner and don’t say a word’.”
The countervailing voices in the wider parliamentary group have failed to mount an effective challenge to Peres and Ben Eliezer because most have been distracted by the acrimonious feuding over the recent leadership contest.
Labour has, in effect, been leaderless since the fall of Barak’s government nine months ago. An election on September 4 for chairman was narrowly won by the dovish Avraham Burg, but the result was put on hold after accusations of vote-rigging at polling stations in mainly Druze communities.
The allegations were made by the loser: Ben Eliezer, who was defeated by little more than 1,000 votes. A re-vote at the 40 polling stations has been ordered for next week, although many Druze are threatening to boycott the new election, thereby letting in Ben Eliezer. Victory for the defence minister would almost certainly keep the party in the coalition for the time being.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, Labour faces another fratricidal leadership race next year, before the Israeli general election due in November 2003. Other senior party figures, including Science Minister Matan Vilna’i, Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh and MKs Shlomo Ben Ami, Haim Ramon and Ophir Pines-Paz are already jockeying for position.
Ben Ami and Ramon have tried unsuccessfully to take the initiative from Likud with a “unilateral separation” proposal to build a fence between Israel and what is left of a Palestinian state.