Ha'aretz 4 December 2001

DEMORALIZED LABOR PARTY
MEMBERS PREFER SHARON

By Yossi Verter

[IMRA - important article that may impact decision of party
vis-a-vis current moves against Arafat]

Last week, Labor's strategy team met at the offices of the party's secretary-general, minister without portfolio Ra'anan Cohen. The team - academics, public relations people and veteran party members - has worked with Cohen during his four years in the secretary-general's job.

The meeting was convened to discuss a recent research study by Dr. Udi Lebel from the Political Science Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, based on a representative sample of opinion among 300 Labor party members. Cohen had asked Lebel, an expert on politics and communications, to assess what "our Labor members really think about how we are doing."

The Ben-Gurion University researcher's findings surprised even the most pessimistic Laborites. In the aftermath of what party members consider the failure of the Oslo process and Ehud Barak's effort at the Camp David talks, the Labor rank and file "are embarrassed and reticent about taking part in public discourse, feeling like a chastised child who is told 'go sit in the corner and don't say a word.'"

The members said they are unhappy with the peace process plans aired by former Labor government ministers Shlomo Ben Ami and Haim Ramon, and by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. They view these as "alchemy," unsuited to complex Palestinian issue.

As Dr. Lebel sees it, the survey proves that Labor members want to be associated with a mainstream Israeli point of view, positioning themselves in the middle of the political spectrum. They want to distance themselves from what they call the "extremist left."

Thus, it turns out that Labor's rank and file members feel most comfortable marching behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As they see it, Sharon deserves to serve as Labor's top man, as well as Likud's. Laborites believe Sharon deserves this position far more than the two candidates who continue to squabble over the results of the September primary, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

The survey proves, Dr. Lebel argues, that Labor members view Sharon as a responsible, security-conscious leader, cut in the mold of the tough Mapai (Labor movement) leaders who ruled the country in its early years. The Labor mainstream does not want to rock the boat by proposing an alternative agenda vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and the peace process. "They won't welcome any policy initiative that will precipitate Labor's departure from the government," the researcher concluded.

Lebel adds that Labor members are "stunned and disappointed" by the spectacle that has sidetracked their party in recent months - the mud-slinging accusations of electoral fraud made by the two primaries candidates. This recoiling from the Burg and Ben-Eliezer struggle is part of a larger syndrome of apathy that plagues Labor, Lebel claims. "Today I see a trend toward unwillingness by party members to go to the polls during the next national elections," he says.

Labor's central committee meeting last Thursday exemplified this trend to apathy - only 40 percent of members arrived for the meeting, although it had been designated "crucial" by party leaders.

Shimon Peres did not fare well in the survey of the 300 Labor members. "There is a significant falling away in the status of Peres as a leader," says Lebel. Peres' nod of support for a Palestinian state at the recent United Nations session, the researcher adds, "was seen by party members as a symbol of everything they want to cut themselves off from."

Cohen gave his stamp of approval to the study findings. He wrapped up the meeting by saying: "These findings are startling. We are seen as being cut off from the public ... We must unite. As it stands now, each one of us is a party unto himself - there is no feeling of collective responsibility."

Cohen recommended his party colleagues start to focus on economic and social welfare issues. "The time to deal with the peace process will come when we see signs that there is someone we can negotiate with," he said.

Meantime, the two candidates in Labor's disputed primary have started to rally their supporters for a second round of voting at 40 precincts, scheduled for December 26.

Burg gave a "pep talk" yesterday to supporters at his Knesset office. He told them he is convinced he has a good chance of winning although Ben-Eliezer is now seen as front-runner. "Just as we beat him [on September 4], we'll beat him now," Burg said.

Labor insiders say the bulk of the campaigning will be done among Druze party members, the majority of voters at the precincts where a re-vote will be held.



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