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Labor youth

(Labor Party logo)

Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, which until only recently sat in opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ruling coalition, decided in December it could not pass up the historic opportunity to participate in Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and joined forces with Sharon in what is being referred to as a “disengagement government.”

A deal hammered out between Labor and Sharon’s Likud granted the newcomers seven ministerial seats in the unity government. The ball was then passed back to Labor and the party was left to decide whom exactly the lucky seven would be.

On December 23, the 2,000 members of Labor’s Central Committee chose among 13 candidates in a vote to decide who would win the coveted ministerial chairs and represent the party in the new unity government.

In what some in the Israeli media described as an internal popularity contest and others as an out-and-out revolution in Labor, young parliamentarians Ophir Pines-Paz and Isaac Herzog beat out the party heavyweights to take the top two slots.

The two youngsters defeated powerhouse former ministers Dalia Itzik, Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, Matan Vilnai, Ephraim Sneh, Haim Ramon, Avraham Shohat, Shalom Simhon and Yuli Tamir – all older than Herzog and Pines-Paz.

Ben-Eliezer, Itzik and Simhon finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the voting. Danny Yatom and Amram Mitzna, who served briefly as party chairman, were also left in the dust.

Pines-Paz decided to take over the critical Interior Ministry post and Herzog will head the Ministry of Housing and Construction.

Who are Herzog and Pines-Paz? Where did they come from?

Neither has been a minister in an Israeli government. The 43-year-old Pines-Paz has been a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for three terms. Herzog, 44, has only served for about two years.

Pines-Paz, originally from Rishon Lezion, now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children. He has a BA in international relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an MA in public policy from Tel Aviv University. He has been a member of Jerusalem’s Conservative Kehilat Ya’ar Ramot Synagogue.

The Labor Party secretary-general is known for his left-of-center political and social positions. He is a key member of the Geneva Initiative Public Council and is on the advisory committee of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Pines-Paz has also come out in support of the right of Jewish women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall site, a contentious religious issue in Israel.

And he is busy: Pines-Paz served on a whopping 13 parliamentary committees in the 15th Knesset.

Ophir Pines-Paz (Knesset)

The week following the party vote, Pines-Paz made an appearance on a popular Israeli television talk show wearing a swank black shirt and sport jacket. He oozed confidence. A recent photograph in an Israeli newspaper showed Pines-Paz striding confidently down a street in a long black coat – Terminator-style, lacking only the black sunglasses and a sawed-off shotgun.

Pines-Paz has, in fact, been a tough opponent of Sharon and spoke out against the possibility of his party joining the Likud in a unity government. Prior to the December 23 vote, he suggested that Labor might enter the government only long enough to ensure the implementation of the Gaza withdrawal.

But following the vote – and without breaking stride – Pines-Paz slid smoothly into the high-level Interior Ministry spot at Sharon’s side and said he would cooperate with the prime minister.

Pines-Paz has already forged a name for himself and carved a position in Labor circles and on the larger Israeli political and diplomatic scene.

Herzog is a rookie but he has not come out of nowhere.

He was born in Tel Aviv and lives there today with his wife and three children. A major in the Israeli army’s reserve forces, he was educated and works as a lawyer. (A senior partner in Herzog’s law firm, Yaakov Neeman, has served as Israeli finance minister).

A member of one of Israel’s founding families, Isaac Herzog, it can be said, comes from the closest thing the country has to royalty. His father, Haim Herzog, had an illustrious public service career spanning the history of the state. A member of the pre-state Hagana defense force, he was a colonel in the British Army and fought in Europe in World War Two. Herzog served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and in a number of high-ranking military positions, including head of the Israeli army’s intelligence wing. Haim Herzog capped off his service with a 10-year term as Israeli president.

Herzog the son, despite the relative youth of his political career, is extremely well liked by Labor Central Committee members – perhaps explaining his success in the recent vote. He has served as Labor whip and was cabinet secretary under former prime minister Ehud Barak. In the current Knesset, he sits on three parliamentary committees and six lobbies; he is chairman of four of them. Between 2000 and 2003, he served as chairman of the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority.

Isaac Herzog (Knesset)

Herzog was implicated as being centrally involved in a scandal surrounding campaign financing in the lead-up to elections for the previous Knesset. After electing to maintain his right to remain silent, Herzog was never formally charged with violating any laws. Due to his alleged involvement in that affair, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel has asked the government to reject Herzog’s ministerial appointment.

A proponent of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, Herzog wrote in an opinion piece in the October 29 edition of the Guardian that the “Gaza disengagement marks a major turning point.”

He expressed cautious optimism yet leveled criticism at the Likud-led government just two months before he became a senior minister in that very same government.

“Despite enormous pressures, the consensus in Israel in favor of a two-state solution has strengthened. Once the preserve of the optimistic left, it is now the policy of Sharon. But failures of leadership have prevented it being reached,” Herzog wrote in the Guardian.

The initial hullabaloo surrounding the success of Herzog and Pines-Paz in the Labor vote tempered as the following week wore on.

Both were actually surprised by their sudden ascendence. Pines-Paz even conceded the vote was a popularity contest when he told Israel Radio “apparently both Isaac Herzog and myself are considered popular.”

Commentary in the national press played down their potential role in the rehabilitation of what was once Israel’s leading political party.

Some Israeli commentators have noted that had the vote been for Labor chairman – the real position of power in the party – neither Herzog nor Pines-Paz would have come close to the top spot. They are seen as “safe” figures who, by virtue of having no real enemies, likewise pose no real threat to those striving for the powerful position of party chairman.

Now that the post-vote dust has settled, it may well turn out that talk of a revolution in Labor led by the party’s young guard was somewhat premature.