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Lackluster Race Poses No Real Threat To Prime Minister

Peres Leads Trailed By Peretz And Barak

Analyst David Essing: 'After Disengagement Ariel Sharon May Be Counting On Mahmoud Abbas And George W. Bush'

Ariel Sharon - Shimon Peres

Israel's 'opposition-coalition' Labor party is headed into the home stretch for its primaries for party leadership. Labor recently joined Sharon's coalition cabinet with one goal only, to support the Prime Minister's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements against the wish of most of his own Likud party members. Labor rejects nearly every other position taken by Sharon and the Likud. How long will this bizarre state of affairs carry on after this fall's pullout? Sharon may be relying on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counting on Mahmoud Abbas and George W. Bush to fulfill their 'roles' after he carries out his withdrawal commitment from the Gaza Strip and the four West Bank settlements? In other words, Abbas will continue to refuse to collect the terrorists' weapons while Bush will honor his commitment to block any attempt to impose an international agreement. So far, Prime Minister Sharon is keeping everyone guessing as to what he has in mind after the historic withdrawal. Without bringing the left-wing Labor party into his coalition government, Sharon would have been stopped in his tracks. Labor is gung-ho for implementing the Roadmap, evacuating nearly all the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state. But after the withdrawal, Sharon may have other plans leading to a breakup of the coalition and maybe an early election. So, the Labor party leader may have to be ready, willing and able to wage a general election.Labor has no less than 5 candidates running for the party leadership in the upcoming primaries on June 28th. If such a covey of candidates view themselves as potential prime ministers, Labor is either blessed by a plethora of talent or is cursed with no one outstanding leader who rises above the others. This is the result of the latest poll by the Maariv daily.

The Frontrunner - Shimon Peres (29%): At age 82, he is perhaps the most consistent; he has never won an election, he's lost five. Peres as Opposition leader has guided Labor on to Sharon's disengagement bandwagon which, he apparently hopes, will roll into the Roadmap and redeem the Oslo process.

Darkhorse - Amir Peretz (22%): Histadrut kingpin has galvanized the big labor union and is running a campaign attacking the government's welfare cuts. So far it's working but only so far. In Israel, no major party candidate has ever run for the premiership on an economic platform without any defense or foreign affairs credentials. But after the disengagement, the Palestinian issue will be as dominant as ever and if the government folds and there is an early election, it will NOT be the economy…! The Likud has finally caught on to the Peretz-Histadrut political connection and is tabling legislation to block it.

Ehud Barak (18%): The former PM, a late comer, has shaken up the race attacking all the other candidates and calling Sharon so corrupt that in most countries, he would have had to resign over financial scandals involving his two sons. Barak argues that he is the only Labor candidate with any chance of taking on Sharon that all the others will 'crash' in a general election either because they are inexperienced or over the hill like 'loser' Shimon Peres.

Matan Vilnayie (13%): Another newcomer is retired IDF general Matan Vilnayie, Mr Clean as Israeli politics go but totally lacking charisma… while Palestinian terrorists continue to use the Gaza settlers for target practice, Vilnayie's slogan is that if Sharon does not move decisively on implementing the Roadmap after the withdrawal Labor must bolt the government.

Binyamin Ben Eliezer (11%): The former Labor party leader, who did not distinguish himself first time around, has been losing ground. He has apparently taken a page out of the Peretz book. As minister responsible for the powerful Electric Corporation, Ben Eliezer won support of the monopoly's labor unions by declaring his opposition to Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu's plans to privatize the Corporation. Barak, who took last week off to go on a business trip abroad, has been targeted by the other four candidates. They apparently view him as having the potential to upset the applecart with a last minute drive. No one doubts Barak's abilities but his tactics, and what some view as his arrogance, are detested by many.In the Labor primaries, a runoff takes place between the two top candidates if no one wins forty percent. According to the latest Maariv poll, Peres would trounce Peretz two to one in a second ballot.

Labor's Prospects: How relevant is Labor's lackluster campaign anyway? Not really; no matter who wins Labor, no candidate is given much of a chance of hoisting Ariel Sharon out of the Prime Minister's chair. There is more than ample evidence, just take Finance Minister Netanyahu in the ruling Likud party. Netanyahu opposes the disengagement which is a Likud anathema. Nonetheless, Netanyahu has steered clear of taking on Sharon and trying to topple him from power. Compared to the current dogfight in Labor, Sharon is basking in splendid isolation. So, it would appear that neither Labor nor Netanyahu has little or no prospect but after the unilateral disengagement it will be a different story. Until then, Sharon has been free to call the shots as he sees them, within the understandings he worked out with President Bush. Once Israel evacuates the Gaza Strip and the 4 West Bank settlements, forget about Sharon's unilateralism. Then the Prime Minister and Labor could part company over how to proceed on the Roadmap. This is the scenario that Barak and his sidekicks are trying to sell Labor party members before the primaries. Barak is the only Labor candidate who has not been in Sharon's government while Amir Peretz has no experience in foreign affairs and security. Moreover, the former PM contends that Sharon has actually adopted Barak's plan for building the security fence and separating from the Palestinians.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister can lose no-confidence votes in the Knesset and the Speaker can call for an early election but to no avail - unless Bibi Netanyahu decides to challenge Sharon inside the Likud.

David Essing

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