Al-Ahram Weekly – 6 June 2003
Israel’s veteran politician, 79- year-old Shimon Peres, donned the mantle of Labour Party leader once again last week.
Famously, Peres has led Labour five times into elections and never won, although for extraordinary reasons he has been prime minister twice.
Peres won against two minor figures last Thursday with 49 per cent of the central committee vote, a lukewarm endorsement for a man widely seen as a holding measure while the party struggles to rehabilitate itself. Fewer than half of the 2,400 committee members turned out to vote.
The internal election was forced after Labour Chairman Amram Mitzna resigned in early May, following a humiliating general election defeat on 28 January at the hands of incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The cull of Labour’s Members of Knesset — reduced to 19, a record low — sent shockwaves through the membership and revived the bitter internal feuding that has wracked the party since the Oslo process it inspired collapsed with the eruption of the Intifada in late September 2000.
Peres looked certain to win only after he secured the last- minute support of the party leader ousted by Mitzna, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who has strong backing in the central committee.
Ben Eliezer agreed to endorse Peres after he was assured that the new chairman would hold the position for only one year. Peres has promised not to challenge for the chairmanship again, opening the door to Ben Eliezer leading the party into the next general election, due in 2007.
After his victory, Peres sounded in buoyant mood: “I was chosen because of my deep belief that this party will be restored to its former glory, its historic place.”
But more realistically, Peres will have to deal with a spate of crises, some of which threaten to tear apart Israel’s most venerable political institution in the coming months.
The first dilemma will be whether to join a unity government with Sharon again. Almost immediately on becoming the new chairman, Peres announced that he had no intention of entering such a government.
However, Peres is known to be addicted to the power and prestige that comes with senior positions in the cabinet. For 18 months of Sharon’s previous government he held the post of foreign minister and Ben Eliezer defence minister — until the latter pulled the plug on the coalition late last year and forced a general election.
Following Mitzna’s heavy defeat in January, Peres was reported to have been in secret negotiations with senior Likud figures about joining the new Sharon cabinet. There was even talk that he might lead a break-away faction of the party into the government. In the end Mitzna held sway.
Although a senior position in the current cabinet would strengthen Peres’s hand — and possibly give him the opportunity to convert his temporary position into a permanent one — two factors may restrain him.
One is the fear that, given his weak position as interim party leader, he lacks the clout to force the party to follow him in such a controversial direction.
The second is that, for the time being, Sharon appears happy with his right-wing government. Only if the Americans force Sharon into serious dismantling of inhabited settlements may the current coalition fall apart and Sharon be compelled to woo Labour. Peres would at least bring a degree of international legitimacy to Sharon’s bullying tactics.
Equally pressing is the question of the party’s huge and mounting debts. The Labour Party owes more than $30 million, a sum it barely knows how to begin reducing, and its rank-and-file membership is dropping by the day.
Things will get rapidly worse. Last week a committee on funding for political parties decided to cut the amount each party receives by 10 per cent. The parties’ incomes are based mainly on the number of MKs they have, so the new formula will further erode funding already slashed by the cut in the party’s representation in the Knesset.
Over the next year, Peres also faces the unenviable task of trying to prevent a very public internecine war breaking out as the contenders for the next chairmanship jostle for position.
Referring to Peres’s victory, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post observed: “Labour is a party that consciously turned its face backwards in order to avoid today’s reality. It is as if the party were deliberately doing all in its power to achieve irrelevance.”
Labour’s future will rest firmly on the next chairman’s shoulders. He or she must fashion a new vision for a party that has lost its way since the era of peacemaking ended. He or she must also find a way to connect to a new, less deferential Israeli public distrustful of the Labour Party and its elitist image.
The signs — after the party’s brief and unsuccessful flirtation with Mitzna — are not encouraging.