Labor Party in disarray as leaders, peace plans compete

JERUSALEM — Israel's Labor Party has an abundance of peace plans. It just doesn't have a clear leader to choose one.

For decades the near-hegemonic power in Israel, Labor has fallen into disarray. After winning a grueling battle to become party chairman just five months ago, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer faces a new challenge to his authority from Knesset member Haim Ramon.

And several different Labor legislators have presented conflicting peace plans.

Some pundits believe Israelis would welcome a credible alternative to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party, but if so, they don't seem to be running to Labor.

If elections were held today, polls show that Labor would win just 12 seats in the 120-member Knesset: That's barely half of the 22 seats it held under its last leader, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and a far cry from the 46 it held under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago.

For the first 30 years of the Jewish state, Labor was nearly synonymous with Israel, controlling the government, the Histadrut Trade Union, the industrial base, the health care organization and the main supermarket chain. Now it barely has a stake in Sharon's national unity government. Moreover, 15 months after Barak resigned, the party still has no established leader and no clear policy.

But Ramon, who intends to challenge Ben-Eliezer for party leadership in the fall, claims he has the electoral formula to turn things around.

His solution: Pull Israeli troops out of Palestinian areas and erect a physical border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Recent polls show that up to 74 percent of Israelis favor plans like Ramon's for "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. The idea is to withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, redeploy behind a sophisticated electronic fence and wait until the Palestinians are ready to negotiate a permanent border. Some security experts say the fence could prevent up to 98 percent of suicide bombings.

In Ramon's version, the fence would run close to the pre-1967 border, but include the three large blocs of Jewish settlement around Ariel, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. Isolated West Bank settlements would be evacuated, as would all the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

The plan offers clear benefits, Ramon argues: The Palestinians no longer could claim they were occupied, Israeli security would be enhanced, and Israel would offer the Palestinians a political settlement along the lines of the December 2000 proposals from President Clinton.

In vigorously outlining his plan to the Labor Party's Central Committee in mid-May, Ramon maintained that it was "electoral gold."

"It's there, lying on the streets and, incredibly, no one is stooping to pick it up," he declared. "We should pick it up."

More than anything, it is Palestinian violence that has brought Labor so low. Since the Oslo peace process collapsed under the weight of Palestinian terror, Labor has been unable to offer the public an attractive or relevant political alternative.

Oslo was the embodiment of the Labor thesis that peace is possible and provides the best long-term guarantee of Israel's security. Coming just when peace seemed around the corner, the intifada shocked Israeli opinion and seemed to prove the rival Likud thesis that the Middle East remains a dangerous and volatile place where true peace is not possible, and that Israel can survive only by being strong and holding on to key national assets.

Ramon now proposes a new Labor agenda based on the middle ground: Nullify the terror by withdrawing behind new lines, while keeping a viable political option open. In other words, he argues, Labor under his plan could fight terror better than the Likud — and could ultimately make peace, which the Likud can't.

Just because Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is not ready to talk peace now, Ramon argues, Israel should not be trapped into spreading its forces too thin by guarding isolated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel should not risk its soldiers' lives "for the avocados of Netzarim or the lettuce of Kfar Darom," he told the Central Committee

But Ramon is not Labor's leader yet, nor has his plan or anything like it been adopted by the party.

Ben-Eliezer, the current leader, is pushing a very different strategy: A fence, yes, but no dismantling of settlements before peace talks.

That, says Ramon, means Israeli forces on both sides of the fence until Arafat or some other Palestinian leader deigns to talk peace.

Ben-Eliezer this week promised residents of border communities that a fence would be built within six months. He told the Central Committee he'd be willing to go back to the Clinton parameters and even give up Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

"Fine," Ramon chided, "but what do you do when there is no partner? And do you really think it is smart for us to argue now over how we would divide Jerusalem while the Palestinians are still killing us?"

The absence of a Palestinian peace partner has led others in Labor in a different direction. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, for example, argues that in lieu of a Palestinian partner, Israel should coordinate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal with the international community. Peres wants the the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations to endorse a plan for early Palestinian statehood, leading within two years to a final peace deal.

His predecessor in the Foreign Ministry, Shlomo Ben-Ami, agrees Israel should coordinate final-status parameters with the international community and then close a deal on that basis with the Palestinians at an international conference. Failing that, Ben-Ami is ready to consider a separation plan, but only on the condition that it has international backing and that an international force takes charge in the Palestinian areas, guiding them to independence, as the United Nations did in East Timor.

All these plans and more likely will be submitted at the Labor Party Convention in early July. What the convention decides will become party policy, and could have an enormous bearing on who eventually is chosen in October as the party's leader and future candidate for prime minister.

Ben-Eliezer's publicly declared readiness to give up Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount before negotiations even begin, also has been widely criticized, with Ramon calling it "a dramatic mistake." But what worries Labor luminaries even more are his public performances.

Ben-Eliezer, 64, has been leader for only five months but already has made a number of gaffes. After meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Washington in February, he indiscreetly told reporters what the U.S. officials had said about Arafat.

The quick-witted Ramon, 51, once widely touted as a future prime minister, lost ground when he bolted Labor in 1994 to set up his own Histadrut faction. Later, after he returned to Labor, he ran Peres' lackluster losing campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.

All that seems forgiven now, at least by the once hostile Central Committee. Come October, however, Ben-Ami, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and others may also decide to throw their hats into the ring.

Whoever wins will have some very big shoes to fill if he is to revive the once-dominant party founded and led by Israel's legendary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.