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GATHERING POLITICAL STORM

Opinion Polls Are Distorted By Uncertainty About Party Leaders In Kadima & Labor

Barak & Ayalon In Neck And Neck Race In Labor

Olmert's Political Fate Could Be Decided By Attorney General And/Or Vinograd Enquiry Into Lebanon War

Ami Ayalon | Bibi Netanyahu

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's entry into the race for Labor party leader, has thrown a wild card into the gathering poker game of Israeli politics. But in the current state of play there are several key moves that have yet to be resolved.

While Palestinian politics may be headed for a meltdown, the Israeli arena is also undergoing a major shakeup. Scandal continues to swirl around Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was off on an official visit to China. The current police enquiry into the Tax Authority involving Shula Zaken, Olmert's bureau chief comes amid new reports that the Attorney General is about to order a police investigation into several of Olmert's own dealings when he served as Finance Minister. To add to Olmert's woes, the Vinograd enquiry into the Lebanon War may issue a letter of warning to Olmert as well as Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz for their failings. This could be the prelude to the commission eventually recommending that these three officials should resign.  On the party level, this has boosted the opposition Likud party lead by Bibi Netanyahu. According to a poll in Haaretz, the Likud would sweep into power taking 29 seats in the 120 member Knesset. Labor comes in second with 18, while Olmert's Kadima garners a dismal 12. In actually trails the far right Yisrael Beitenu which gains ground with 14 seats. This is reflected in Olmert's plummeting to an approval rating of only 14%.  Over in Labor, party leader Amir Peretz is even worse off with 10%. 

Naturally, this has spotlighted the race for potential leaders to take over Kadima and Labor. ( In the Likud, Netanyahu, although challenged by Silvan Shalom, appears to be a shoo-in.) So in the ruling Kadima party that now commands less than 10 % support of Israeli voters is in  a deep hole. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni continues to be Olmert's biggest rival, she gets a whopping 50 per cent approval rating and has signaled that she is in the running. 

Ehud Barak | Amir Peretz

Over in Labor, Peretz is considered to be a lame duck as defense minister and a dead duck as party leader. His days of political primacy may be numbered with Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon in a neck and neck race to oust him as party leader and defense minister. Both garner over 30% of support from Labor party members. However, when it comes to the public at large, Ayalon would draw more votes for Labor than Barak. Ayalon has a sterling record- commander of the vaunted Navy Commandos, Israel Navy Commander and Chief of the Shabak Security Service. He is considered to be an Israeli of highest integrity, the epitome of 'Mr. Clean'. Politically speaking, despite his military background, he tends to the left and was a sponsor of the Geneva initiative for a Palestinian state. His biggest drawback is his lack of governmental experience - he has never even served in the cabinet let alone as foreign or defense minister. Some pundits compare him to Amram Mitzna, the former Labor party leader who also rode to the top of Labor as a knight in shining armor, but who proved inept at coping with the nitty-gritty of political infighting and quickly disappeared from the scene after losing to Ariel Sharon.

As for Ehud Barak's comeback he is more popular inside Labor than with the public at large. Barak has been trying to jettison his former image of the arrogant, know it all one man show who antagonized public opinion. Everyone agrees that Barak is super intelligent, perhaps the best analyst of the country's Geo-strategic position. But he is often caricatured as suffering from an ' Emperor Napoleon' complex. (In fact, Ariel Sharon acquired this august role without antagonizing public opinion). Barak has adopted a low profile by dodging the media. In fact, during the war in Lebanon, he often appeared on foreign  TV networks defending Israel, while steering clear of Israeli interviewers. And with good reason - Barak as prime minister ordered the unilateral IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon. Many Israelis blame this pullout for the Hezbollah buildup which exploded into last summer's war. But most Laborites favor Barak, a former Chief of Staff, as the best qualified to restore the IDF's deterrent power. 

Summing up, the current opinion polls are skewed when sizing up the current state of play because only one of the three potential parties has a permanent leader in place- that is the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu. It is highly unlikely that Amir Peretz will lead Labor in the next election and Olmert is also a big question mark in Kadima. New leaders of Labor and Kadima could dramatically affect the overall match-up in Israeli politics. Critics of Amir Peretz accuse him of appointing an Arab MK Raleb Majadla as cabinet minister in order to muster the support of Israeli Arabs in next May's party primaries. In any case, the latest polls will add fuel to flames inside Labor. Over in Kadima, the Prime Minister is not facing any move to topple him -  Olmert's fate is first in the hands of the Attorney General and the Vinograd Enquiry. As for the far- right politics of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu they are  apparently paying off. Lieberman's hard line campaign against the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Iran is gaining support with Israeli public opinion. 

David Essing

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