Failed Peace Process Frays Israel's Labor Party

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - After seven years of a peace process that won't take hold and eleven months of low-level warfare, Israel's left-of-center Labor party - which predates the founding of the State - is facing a serious crisis, an Israeli analyst said on Wednesday.

Labor party primaries on Tuesday seemed set to give Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg a narrow victory over Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer for party leadership.

But Ben-Eliezer, 65, called for a recount and commission of inquiry on Wednesday, charging that the election results were "one of the gravest political scandals in our political history."

The Burg campaign demanded its man be declared a winner and rejected the call for a commission of inquiry.

Burg, 46, favored as the likely winner, was just 1,020 votes ahead of Ben-Eliezer, taking 34,000 ballots or 50 percent of the total vote. Ben-Eliezer won about 33,000 ballots -- about 48 of the total vote. By mid-afternoon there were about 2000 ballots still to be counted, giving Israel its own version of last year's election cliffhanger in Florida.

"All attempts to distort the voters' decision will be opposed by the wall of determination of Burg and his staff," said a statement from Burg's campaign headquarters.

"The Labor Party cannot elect a leader by sin," Ben-Eliezer's campaign staff said in a statement. "The election of a party leader, which is based on fraud without a serious examination, will be regretted by the party for many years. The lawful votes of Labor Party members from all sectors gave Ben-Eliezer a significant victory," it added.

However, political science Professor Shmuel Sandler of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv said the primary results are the sign of a deeper, more serious problem in the Labor party.

"It's a party in crisis that lost its way as a result of the Oslo process," said Sandler, in reference to the peace process, which began in 1993 under the direction of key Labor party members.

One sign that the party is deeply troubled is that the main leaders of the party, Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin, didn't contend for party leadership, Sandler said.

Beilin, an architect of Oslo accords, couldn't win because he is being blamed for Oslo. Ben-Eliezer and Burg, on the other hand, are both free of direct involvement with Oslo.

The other sign that something is awry in Labor are the primary results. The results are divided down the middle and will probably end up contested in the courts as a "Florida II," he said, in reference to the U.S. elections in November 2000 in which the Florida vote was contested for weeks.

As Sandler sees it, the current crisis in the Labor party is similar to that after the 1973 Yom Kippur war when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to power because he had not been in office at the time of the war.

The Labor party led Israel as the dominant party from 1933 to the 1970's, through the war of Independence and two other wars as well as a host of new state national crises. But its popularity collapsed as a result of the 1973 war, when Israel was nearly defeated by surrounding Arab armies due to the fact that it was ill prepared.

(Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud party is partly credited with turning the tide of that war in Israel's favor.)

Just as the Labor party was blamed for the "fiasco" of the 1973 war, it is now being blamed for the Oslo process, Sandler said.

The Labor party suffered a major setback when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak handed Sharon an overwhelming victory in February, just a year and eight months after he himself trounced former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak had come to power promising to revolutionize society and complete the peace process begun by his mentor Rabin and current Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

He managed to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon, which had been mired there for 18 years, as he had pledged to do, but without an agreement with Lebanon or Syria.

Subsequent offers to the Palestinians, which far exceeded offers by previous administrations, were followed by the current Palestinian uprising.

Nevertheless, Sandler said Barak is not entirely to blame.

"Barak brought it out into the open," he said. "He accelerated it [and] was the catalyst [for the current crisis]."

As for the future of the party, it could either split or wait for new leadership to arise. The big question now is whether or not Israel will return to a political system that is dominated by only one party - this time by the Likud - as Labor dominated the scene prior to 1977, Sandler said.