Can Israel's Labour Party Return to Power?

By Album, Andrew | The Middle East, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Can Israel's Labour Party Return to Power?


Album, Andrew, The Middle East


With Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud Party being racked by division and animosity, could Israel's Labour Party seize the initiative? As Andrew Album reports, new leader Ehud Barak, whilst attempting to woo the voters, is facing problems of his own.

Although he may be enjoying a healthy lead in the opinion polls, Israeli Labour Party's new leader Ehud Barak is facing up to the fact that his honeymoon period has come to an end. At a recent meeting of the party's delegation in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, his opponents recently launched a concerted attack on him.

Charged with using dictatorial methods and failing to consult, his opponents did not mince their words. Leading party member Haggai Merom is reported to have told him: "We looked up at Rabin and Peres when we opposed them but you we look at right in the eye. Get it into your head, you are not one of them."

Added former minister Uzi Baram, "wherever I go I hear bad things about you, and I am hard pressed to say something in your favour."

Barak was clearly shaken by the criticism, but has countered it by claiming it is borne out of disagreements with his centrist views on the peace process, rather than his leadership methods. "I know I am not inspiring the tribe of party loyalists. I could position myself further to the left and make them happy. But look at the receptions I get in Likud bastions," he says, "it's totally different from anything Labour leaders have ever had before."

In fact, Barak seems more concerned with the possible threat from a new centre party, formed by malcontents in the Likud such as Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai or Tel Aviv mayor Ronnie Milo, than any opposition from his left flank. As he is quick to point out, the opinion polls show him clearly ahead of Netanyahu.

Columnist Ze'ev Chafets is dismissive of Barak's opinion poll lead. "This is an alarmingly weak showing, considering Netanyahu's spectacular incompetence and the fact that he is disliked and distrusted by everyone from his cabinet colleagues to his wife."

Added to Chafets barbed observation is the fact that opinion polls in Israel have consistently overstated the popularity of the Labour party. The result has been frequent surprises from the Likud, such as in 1996, when the pollsters claimed Labour's Shimon Peres was clearly ahead, but Netanyahu snatched victory from under his nose.

At the moment, Barak's Labour opponents do not seem to have a clear candidate to unite around. The most likely front runner, Chaim Ramon, himself has enemies in the party and is also being touted as a potential partner in the new centrist party.

One other possibility is the current army Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak, who is due to retire from the army in the summer. He is known to be keen to join the Labour party and some have been suggesting that he should challenge Barak for the leadership of the Labour party.

According to recent press reports, such a move is not on Shahak's agenda. A plum position such as shadow Defence Minister is almost guaranteed and, given the long-standing friendship between the two, it is claimed that Shahak would prefer to work with Barak in returning Labour to government as quickly as possible.

Still, in the meantime, Barak is working on redefining the image of the Labour Party amongst the country's Jewish population. The aim is clear -- to broaden the party's appeal to large sections of the country which it has previously shunned, not only as a way of attracting disaffected Likud voters, but also to improve his potential to build a coalition government in the future.

His prime target is Israel's Sephardi Jews, those who came from Arab countries and now constitute a majority of the country's Jewish population. …

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