By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
JERUSALEM, May 29 -- Israel's Labor Party on Monday ousted Amir Peretz, its populist leader sharply criticized for his role as defense minister during last summer's Lebanon war, in a primary election with implications for the durability of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strained governing coalition.
But a strong turnout among the party's divided rank and file produced no clear winner, setting the stage for a runoff election in two weeks to select the leader of Israel's second-largest parliamentary faction.
Results released early Tuesday morning showed Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, and Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel's state security service, the Shin Bet, at the top of the five-person field. Neither candidate -- each a former senior military commander of European descent who personifies the roots of Israel's founding political movement -- reached the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a second round of voting.
Ayalon has pledged to leave Olmert's coalition if chosen to head the party, while Barak, who is not an elected member of parliament, has said he would work to replace the highly unpopular prime minister without collapsing the government.
After losing the 2001 general elections in a landslide, Barak held the edge in his comeback race with 36 percent of the vote. Ayalon followed with 31 percent, and Peretz finished a distant third with 22 percent. Barak and Ayalon will now court supporters of Peretz before their runoff, scheduled for June 12.
Holding 19 of parliament's 120 seats, Labor is Olmert's main coalition partner. But the party has lost support since finishing second in the March 2006 elections, largely because of its alliance with Olmert's Kadima party in conducting the inconclusive war against the armed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah last summer.
Many Labor members have called for the party to abandon Olmert since a state investigative panel, called the Winograd Committee, issued findings last month that harshly criticized the prime minister and Peretz for mismanaging the war.
But causing the government to collapse could trigger new elections nearly three years early, with polls showing the opposition Likud Party most likely to win. Olmert could also try to incorporate hawkish religious-nationalist parties into the government to preserve his coalition.
Peretz, a former trade union leader of Moroccan descent, defeated former prime minister Shimon Peres to lead the party in November 2005. He did so with support from union members, many of them Jews from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries, and Arab Israelis, who supported his call for equal rights in the Jewish state.
Labor's traditional elite base of kibbutzniks, as the residents of Israel's collective farms are known, and more dovish business leaders and military officers backed Peres.
Although his platform focused on social issues, Peretz lobbied for the defense portfolio despite having virtually no military experience. His home town of Sderot has been showered by Palestinian rockets from Gaza during his tenure -- 10 more fell Monday in southern Israel -- and the Winograd Committee concluded that he was unprepared for the job.
Peretz, 55, has said he would leave the defense post to become finance minister if reelected as party leader.
"He was supposed to be the guy to change the party -- then flop," said Zeev Sternhell, a political science professor at Hebrew University who is an expert on the Labor Zionist movement.
By turning back to traditional Labor leaders, Sternhell said, "the question is now whether the party wants to play in the big time and run the government or content itself with playing a second or even third role, as it has been."
"To me, the social-democratic left has no real ambition right now," he said. "They no longer believe in themselves."
Ayalon, 61, has stated bluntly that he would leave Olmert's government. A former navy admiral who headed Israel's elite naval commando unit and later the Shin Bet, Ayalon is also a sponsor of a peace initiative with Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh.
The proposal calls for Israel to return land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war to the Palestinians or swap territory inside Israel in exchange for the parts of the West Bank it intends to keep. Under the initiative, no Palestinian refugee would be allowed to return to Israel.
Barak, 65, served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and negotiated intensively with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Neither effort resulted in a peace agreement.
He was trounced by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections as the most recent Palestinian uprising gained momentum, and he has since made millions of dollars in the private sector. Barak has said he would remain in Olmert's coalition and would probably take over the defense portfolio.