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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 20, 2005

Q. How relevant is the Labor Party primary for disengagement and a peace process? Q. What are the ramifications of a law and order crisis for Abu Mazen's leadership?

Q. The Labor Party is holding a primary election to choose its leader this coming Friday. How relevant is this for disengagement and a future peace process? What can we learn from the positions and inclinations of the candidates?

A. First it must be noted that the Labor primary could conceivably be postponed, if in the eyes of new party Secretary General Eitan Kabel a sampling of new party membership forms in the next few days turns up enough irregularities to merit a full fledged investigation of the procedure of signing up new party members in recent months. This is but one indication of the chaos that has characterized the entire Labor primary process. But similar dilemmas are not unknown in the Likud as well, as evidenced by charges still pending against PM Sharon regarding campaign finance irregularities and allegations of large-scale "purchase" of safe party seats in the last Likud primary in 2003.

The singular new development of the Labor primary campaign has been the emergence of Histadrut Secretary General Amir Peretz as a real contender for Labor leadership. Peretz is seen as an authentic representative of the "second Israel"--eastern Jews from the development towns. True, Labor has already briefly had a Sephardic leader, Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer. But he is a product of the "establishment", in his case the military establishment, and his politics are fairly traditional Labor Party "security dove" politics. Peretz, on the other hand, not only began his career as a development town mayor, but his policies are socio-economically focused and constitute unabashed throwbacks to the pro-labor economics that went out of style in Israel, as in most of the post-industrial world, with the triumph of globalism and market economics.

Accordingly, Peretz has claimed success in recruiting new party members from the lower socio-economic strata, such as Likud dropouts and Israeli Arabs--constituents that Labor, with its old-boy establishment image, ceased appealing to decades ago. It is the alleged irregularities linked to the appearance of these new Labor Party members that have given some of the other candidates an opening to challenge the legitimacy of Peretz's following, after they failed to disqualify his candidacy for only recently having merged his small "One Nation" splinter party back into the Labor Party itself. Perhaps most significantly, Peretz, it is alleged, used his control over the Histadrut to force union members to support him or be fired: shades of legendary Labor strong-arm tactics of the 1950s!

It is another of the five candidates, Ehud Barak, who is spearheading the effort to de-legitimize Peretz. Barak certainly has reason to be concerned: the polls show Peretz leading him, with both trailing current party head Shimon Peres. Because none of the five candidates is likely to garner 50 percent of the votes on Friday, the two biggest vote-getters will participate in a run-off two weeks later. If Barak is one of them, he might be able to rally the votes of the three losers to his side and defeat Peres. If not, at least he'll be party number two, poised to retake power if and when the 82 year old Peres steps aside. If Peretz comes in second, the other three candidates are likely to back Peres in the runoff, if only because Peretz's economic policies and total lack of ministerial experience frighten them while Peres is seen as a relatively short term choice due to his age.

Among these three front-runners it is Barak who presents a "non-traditional" policy on the Palestinian issue: he favors comprehensive disengagement on the West Bank, without a peace process, as the next step after leaving Gaza, whereas Peres and Peretz both want to see a return to a full-fledged peace process. Any one of the three, then, would probably challenge PM Sharon's anticipated policy direction after disengagement from Gaza. It is this policy clash with Sharon that is most likely to constitute Labor's "casus belli" for precipitating a coalition collapse and early elections after Gaza, particularly insofar as Sharon is thought likely to shift his policies to the right after disengagement in order to rally Likud dissidents to his electoral cause and weaken support for Binyamin Netanyahu.

Barak, incidentally, has signed on the largest number of supporters among Labor members of Knesset, including several, like Amram Mitzna from the party's left wing, who favor a peace process rather than more disengagement. One of these MK supporters confided to me that the only reason for her support was the calculation that only Barak, of all five candidates, had a chance to actually win an election against Sharon or Netanyahu. But Barak suffers from a low credibility rating among the party's primary voter rank and file. Peretz, on the other hand, has recruited a large ex-parliamentary support group of prominent public figures impressed by his new image and his ability to recruit votes from sectors of traditional non-Labor supporters.

The two candidates who close out the primary list, and trail behind in the polls, are Ben Eliezer and Matan Vilnai. The former was too closely associated with Sharon when he served as his defense minister from 2001 to 2003, and has attracted little support. As for Vilnai, his greatest fault--but also his only ticket thus far into the party leadership--is that he tries to be all things to all people by avoiding taking a clear position on anything.

Another potentially significant development of this Labor primary season is the role of the Israeli Arab community. The bloody events of October 2000, in which 12 Israeli Arabs lost their lives during Barak's premiership, alienated many Israeli Arab supporters of Labor. Peretz, with his attentiveness to their socio-economic needs, has succeeded in returning them to the fold, and then some. Ben Eliezer, an Arabic speaker, has also actively recruited the Arab vote. The result is that Israeli Arabs are now a force to be reckoned with within the party, with possible far-reaching consequences for the Labor platform regarding both the peace process and anti-Arab discrimination.

Finally, there is the issue of Peres' age and his "loser" image. Anyone who thinks that Peres will suffice with a short term as party leader seriously underestimates his remarkable staying power. On the other hand, anyone who believes he can lead Labor to an election victory must contend with Peres' equally remarkable record of losing elections. Still, if Peres wins the primaries it will be a unique achievement, insofar as his elections speeches preach the virtues of nanotechnology, and few of his listeners can follow all the loops in his increasingly elliptical prose.

Q. There appears to be a law and order crisis in Palestine. What are its origins and what are its ramifications for Abu Mazen's leadership?

A. The crisis is of sufficient concern to have warranted a threat by PM Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) last week to suspend all government activities unless the security services reign in the disorder. The most obvious manifestations of this law and order malaise in recent weeks have been repeated shooting incidents between rival gangs on the streets of cities like Ramallah and Nablus, outbursts of violence by disgruntled security personnel who feel left out of the current reorganization of security services, and even a shooting incident in Abu Ala's winter house in Jericho (he was not there at the time).

Other manifestations include a "one-day warning strike" by Palestinian attorneys who claimed, in early June, that they are subjected to threats in the courtroom. Judges, feeling equally threatened by unruly plaintiffs, backed them up, blaming the police for a failure to act. A senior Palestinian former official told me last week that the court and legal system are virtually nonexistent. A poll taken on June 9-11 by Khalil Shikaki's highly credible PSR institute found that, of eight areas of Palestinian public concern, six are judged by the public to have deteriorated in recent months. These include economic conditions, democracy and human rights, enforcement of law and order, the fight against corruption, and internal relations among Palestinian factions. The only area in which progress is seen is one dependent on Israel: prisoner release. Perhaps of greater interest, the Palestinian public's primary concerns are heavily weighted toward domestic issues like poverty, corruption and internal anarchy, with "occupation measures" the only Israel-related issue ranked high.

Much of this malaise is traced by Palestinians to the Arafat regime, which politicized the judiciary, debilitated law enforcement and nurtured corruption. But Arafat, by force of his personality and his historic leadership position, at least had the authority to bring about a semblance of order when the necessity appeared to arise, whereas his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) apparently does not. Nor has Abbas' appointee as minister of interior (really, internal security), General Nasser Yusuf, succeeded in projecting that authority. Then too, it is the expectation that, finally, Abbas will be able to do something about law and order (nobody expected this of Arafat) that explains at least part of the public's complaint about the situation. That there are too few judges to adjudicate criminal issues was the case under Arafat; Abbas is expected to do something about it.

To the credit of many Palestinian commentators and public figures, they don't place primary blame on Israel for this situation. Here and there the occupation and its evils are cited as important background factors, but the thrust of the discussion among the Palestinian public and in the Palestinian media is on Palestinian responsibility.

I once witnessed a graphic demonstration of Arafat's way of dealing with criminality in Palestine. Sitting in London at a "track two" meeting two years ago with a prominent Palestinian politician and lawyer, our conversation was repeatedly interrupted by cell phone calls to the man. From his deferential manner, I soon became aware that the caller was Arafat himself. Eventually the politician/lawyer apologized and announced that he had to return home early: the Rais had asked him to arbitrate a dispute over property between members of two prominent clans whose support was important to him.

That was Arafat's justice. I doubt Abbas is able to act this way or is interested in doing so. The question is, can he restore law and order to Palestine using the classic instruments of effective police, reliable courts, and strong leadership.