News Analysis: Labors strong reaction to slurs surprises, confuses many Israelis

JERUSALEM — The outrage expressed by the Labor Party in recent days over ethnic slurs made by a senior member of their ranks may have been less than sincere.

And just possibly, the criticism heaped by party colleagues on Labor Knesset member Ori Orr, who disparaged Moroccan Israelis in a newspaper interview last week, may actually have been meant for Orr's longtime friend and close political mentor — Labor leader Ehud Barak.

For some time, there has been discontent among some Labor members regarding Barak's seeming inability to increase his popularity and exploit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent weaknesses.

The dismay in Labor, moreover, appeared in many cases to focus more on the anticipated damage to the party caused by Orr's remarks than on the way he may have insulted a segment of Israeli society.

A retired major general, Orr was quoted in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz last week as saying that Moroccan Jews are the "most problematic ethnic group."

He added that Moroccan Jews in Israel "have no curiosity to know what's happening" and that they interpret legitimate criticism as ethnically motivated.

Barak last year publicly apologized for the suffering Middle Eastern and North African Jews endured in the early years of the state, which was run at the time by Labor's precursor, the Mapai Party.

After last week's explosion, he said it would take a long time to mend the damage Orr had caused the party.

Orr, who apologized for his remarks, refused to resign from the Knesset, but the party forced Barak to strip him of all his leadership positions.

Barak, badly bruised from the Orr affair, was in the United States this week with three senior members of the Labor Party in an effort to raise his party's profile among Clinton administration officials and American legislators.

In his meetings with lawmakers, including members of the House International Relations Committee, Barak hoped to woo support for his brand of peacemaking.

Barak made a point of showing that his vision of peace talks with the Palestinians stands in sharp contrast to Netanyahu's vision.

"We can see through the fog that we are heading toward a collision," he said Tuesday. "We are trying to warn against it."

Speaking a day earlier to a small group of reporters, Barak left the door open for Orr to return to good graces in the Labor Party if he performed "long hard work in those very communities" that he offended.

Israeli observers, meanwhile, note that the Labor Party's criticism of Orr was far more vehement than the reaction in the country at large — or in Sephardi communities themselves.

Even Moroccan Israelis, the primary target of Orr's remarks, have been taken aback at the vehemence of Labor's reaction.

Indeed, the Moroccan community's own reaction, by and large, has been a contemptuous "So what."

This is not to say that Moroccan Jews in Israel do not harbor resentments over what they almost uniformly insist was the discriminatory treatment they received at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment when their families came to Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s.

But decades have elapsed since then. And while some profound social problems created by the mass immigration during the Jewish state's early years remain unsolved, Israeli society has made great strides toward ethnic cohesion.

Many Israelis this week reached the conclusion that politicians may have an interest in perpetuating the old ethnic sores that the public views, or wants to view, as healed.

At the end of the day, some social observers maintain, it is the Labor Party's vehement reaction against Orr — rather than the Sephardi reaction or, for that matter, Orr's comments themselves — that heightens the risk of stirring new ethnic tension within Israeli society.

By the same token, Labor's reaction, while ostensibly expressing sensitivity as well as contrition, in fact reflected a lack of empathy and a one-dimensional understanding of a society in flux.

The same might be said of Netanyahu's reaction.

On Wednesday of last week, the day Orr's remarks appeared in Ha'aretz, Netanyahu made a rare and unplanned Knesset appearance to squeeze every drop of rhetorical capital out of Labor's discomfort.

But while it won some cheap plaudits, that, too, may prove not to have gone over well with the general public.

Indeed, many in Likud declined to repeat Netanyahu's reference to the number of Sephardi ministers in his Cabinet and the fact that the new army chief of staff is Sephardi.

They, perhaps better sensing the mood, preferred to leave such head-counting to the bad old times — or to a battered and disconsolate Labor.