Profile: Israel's Labor Party in Disarray

Morning Edition: May 8, 2003

Israel's Labor Party Considers New Leader



BOB EDWARDS, host:

Leaders of Israel's Labor Party meet today to discuss how to elect a new leader following Sunday's angry resignation of Amram Mitzna. The retired general said vicious in-fighting within the party had made it impossible for him to continue. The once-proud Labor Party is in severe disarray, just as international attention returns to the peace process, the issue that defined Labor for more than a decade. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Even after the drubbing it took in the last elections, the Labor Party hoped to influence the coming peace efforts. One scenario went like this: The US-backed road map would force Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make concessions that would drive his far-right coalition partners out of the government. At that point, Labor would join a national unity government with Likud and the secular Shinui Party and push Sharon further along the path to peace. But now the number-one topic is whether Labor can even survive as a meaningful force in Israeli politics.

Shinui Cabinet Minister Yosef Paritzky, whose party benefited from the votes of disaffected Labor supporters in the last election, told Israel Radio that he thinks Labor is finished.

Mr. YOESF PARITZKY (Shinui Party): I think they're going to break apart. I don't know now what the Labor is. I think they're gonna dismantle into left, into more extreme left, and maybe some people will come to us, to the center. I think the Labor Party, as the Labor Party, simply ended its way.

KENYON: Labor members of Parliament dismissed such dire predictions. Lawmaker Isaac Herzog called Mitzna's resignation an opportunity for Labor to get its house in order.

Mr. ISAAC HERZOG (Labor Party): I don't believe in any split in the party. I think there are many candidates. That's part of the problem in Labor, but I don't think that the vultures that are now trying to jump on the Labor Party are correct. I think they're absolutely wrong.

KENYON: Herzog said Labor would probably decide on an interim leader. The previous Labor head, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, threw his support behind former Prime Minister Shimon Peres this week. Some analysts called that a wise move given a recent poll that put Ben-Eliezer's popularity among Labor voters at a dismal 10 percent. Privately, some Labor members said that for all his flaws, Mitzna was right to complain that instead of learning to behave like a unified opposition, Labor leaders waged internal power struggles and plotted to undermine him. Analyst Reuven Hazan at Hebrew University says Labor is imploding at the worst possible moment for the already battered Israeli peace camp. He says even if Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan manage to crack down on terrorism, Labor won't be in any position to benefit.

Mr. REUVEN HAZAN (Hebrew University): Even then, Ariel Sharon will take credit for it and then Labor might not be able to ride the wave of the peace process back into power. So they are in dire, dire straits today, and they don't look like they're pulling their act together any time soon. Ariel Sharon is sitting back with a very, very wide grin on his face.

KENYON: Hazan notes that Israeli political parties have a history of breaking up and re-forming with new alliances and new agendas. Veterans of the Oslo peace process, such as Yossi Beilin, are in the planning stages of forming a new social democrat style party with the left-wing members of Meretz and others. It's not clear if Mitzna and like-minded members of Labor will be tempted to bolt if the new party gets off the ground. For longtime peace activist Janet Aviad, these are times that remind her why she puts the goal of a peaceful Israel alongside an independent Palestine above any party loyalty. She says whoever is willing to carry that flag deserves support.

Ms. JANET AVIAD (Peace Activist): Right now the peace movement in Israel is pinning its hope on the progress of the road map. This is the first breakthrough in two and a half years. It's even possible that Sharon will carry that flag for a while. At least that's what he says in his public statements. It's worth checking.

KENYON: With a smile, Aviad admits that she's taking an optimist's view, given Sharon's record and the painful history of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But she says as long as there's any hope for a negotiated peace, she owes it to her children to try and fight for it, even if the leaders of Israel's historic Labor Party are too busy fighting among themselves to help. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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