Ayalon, Barak, and the return of security experts

By Mario Sznajder (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Sznajder discusses the Israeli political scenario after the first round of Labor party primaries – in which Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak were the favorites – and explains how the partial election of Havodah will determine the new government and political future of Ehud Olmert, as well as the political agenda of the country, affected by years of security crisis and a growing socio-economic gap.

PLUS: “A red card for Ehud Olmert“, by Mario Sznajder

Mario Sznajder is a Leon Blum chair and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a researcher for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He has published hundreds of articles in scientific journals on fascism, human rights, democracy, and the Middle East.

THE INTERNAL PRIMARY ELECTIONS OF THE LABOR PARTY in Israel saw a 68 percent participation rate, and unseated Amir Peretz (current Defense Minister) from the leadership of the party.

The partial victor of the race, with 36% of the votes, was Ehud Barak, ex-Prime Minister (1999-2001) and ex-Commander of the Armed Forces of Israel. In second place, with 31% of the votes, was Ami Ayalon, ex-Commander of the Navy and ex-Director of the Israeli Security Agency, better known as Shin Bet (internal security and counter-intelligence).

But what are the real implications of this primary election, which seems marginal and unimportant? Above all else, these primaries made Amir Peretz pay the political price for the failure of his leadership as Minister of Defense during the War in Lebanon last summer. But Peretz’s electoral failure is relative. And partly because of his political and organizational capacities at the head of the Labor Party, the Israeli public continues to place the growing socio-economic gap as the most important political issue, above the security crisis and the accusations made in the Winograd Report about the War in Lebanon. The socio-economic gap began as a result of the neo-liberal policies of Benjamin Netanyahu applied under Ariel Sharon’s government (2001-2006) and continued under the current administration of Ehud Olmert.

And so despite the Winograd Report, Amir Peretz has held onto his political capital as the most dependable of all of the Labor candidates to lead the movement to improve the socio-economic gap.

Ehud Barak presented himself as a politician who has learned the lesson of his previously failed administration. As an ex-military officer, and a natural candidate for the Ministry of Defense, he has provided Ehud Olmert the ultimate opportunity to survive the politically tumultuous summer of 2007.

Barak is running for the office of Prime Minister again, but only after having served in Ministry positions that helped dissipate his negative public image, inherited from his previous administration. Despite his political regeneration, Ehud Barak did not obtain the 40 percent of the votes that would have assured his victory over the first round of elections. In a few weeks, a second round will be held, which may prove unfavorable to the Prime Ministerial hopeful.

Ami Ayalon has framed himself as the new politician, a clean slate untainted by any of the sins of an old boy-political past.

His relative success (with 31 percent of the votes despite his lack of a clear support base) and his hope to win a second round may signify the end of Olmert’s political career. Ayalon has openly stated that in light of the Winograd report and as leader of the Labor party he would demand the immediate resignation of Olmert. His potential presence at the head of the Ministry of Defense will more than likely set up a new balance between the army and the Israeli government.

This partial election at the heart of the second majority of the Israeli coalition government will not only determine the future of the Israeli government, and the political future of Ehud Olmert (leader of the Kadima Party), but it will also alter the political agenda of the country, affected by years of security and socio-economic crisis.

And even more importantly, the Ministerial elections that would come about following the internal Labor elections will affect the regional leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Replacing the inexperience of Olmert and Peretz with new national security leadership will force these regional actors to reconsider their policies of pressure and harassment.

The changes in the Israeli government will not only transform the political agenda of the country, but they will also make for the institution of very different policies with regards to the internal and regional security challenges confronting Israel. It is an important time for Israeli politics.

The Safe Democracy Foundation would like to invite you to subscribe to its weekly electronic newsletter, delivered to you every Thursday, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).