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Haim Ramon: Labor Party Chairman?

12 October 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The Labor party convention is on November 19th and this week the internal party polls show Knesset Member Haim Ramon (35%) leading his adversaries, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna (28%) and Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer (20%) for the first time in the three way race.  Ramon sees Mitzna as completely inexperienced in national politics and Ben Eliezer as only a ‘lackey’ to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies.  Many on the left tend to agree.

Ramon was among the first to speak out forcefully on the need for a unilateral separation between Israel and the Palestinians, so long as there was no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.  His line of separation would also include keeping hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live just over the 1967 West Bank boundaries (1949 armistice lines) although no one knows exactly where he would draw the border.  He would also keep the Rift Valley area along the Jordan River as a security zone until there would be negotiations, using the area as a bargaining chip.

Mitzna is further to the left, announcing he would continue negotiations (broken off at Taba in Jan. 2001 between the Barak government and the Palestinian Authority) despite the fact the Palestinians offered very few concessions and PA Chairman Arafat rejected the agreement in any case.   Today ‘moderate’ Palestinians believe the agreement should have been accepted.  Israel was to give back virtually everything (97% or so) and split Jerusalem.  Should he fail, he would begin a pullback and not include the Rift Valley as a security zone.  He has never explained how this would work.  Mitzna is seen as being much closer to the left wing Meretz party and super  Labor dove Yossi Beilin than to the average Laborite.

As for Ben Eliezer, he has a tough job as defense minister, not only dealing with the Palestinians but in handling much of the settler movement in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza.  There are over 100 caravan proto-settlements in varying degree of legality, many of which need to be removed.  He has begun, apparently to show he his not adhering to the Likud or other right wing parties in the government. 

Ramon and Mitzna claim Labor must leave the government where as Ben Eliezer feels to leave in face of the joint Iraqi – Palestinian threat would be irresponsible.  Ramon makes the case for leaving the government and showing the same responsibility in the Knesset opposition as was done in 1990-91 during what is called the ‘first intifada’ and the Gulf War.

Ramon has more grass roots support, 20 years experience in the Knesset and the backing of Labor centrists.  The thinking is that Mitzna in the end will support Ramon who will challenge Ben Eliezer (who controls the party machine at the moment).  Should Ramon win he will face either Sharon or former PM Benyamin Netanyahu in the 2003 elections and it appears he will lead Labor to a major Knesset defeat.

His job will only begin afterwards as he needs to build a credible left wing opposition with social, economic, political and diplomatic alternatives to the Likud.  And one would hope he could begin the process with 30 seats (out of 120) in the left opposition of Labor and Meretz, otherwise Israeli democracy may find itself in serious crisis.