Accusations of racism mar Labor primary celebration

A dramatic outburst by Knesset member Adisu Massala accused the Labor Party of racism, just as the final results of its primaries were being announced in Tel Aviv Tuesday.

“You are racists!” the Ethiopian immigrant shouted, spoiling what party leader Ehud Barak had hoped would be a unity fest. “It cannot be that the head of a party who wants to be the prime minister will abandon in such a racist way the Jews of Ethiopia.”

Massala accused Labor officials of selling him out and giving the slot to a representative of the Russian immigrant community, a larger voting bloc than the Ethiopian community.

Barak, who has worked hard to muster party support from minorities, ordered a recount of the vote.

The top five finishers in Monday’s primary were Knesset members Shlomo Ben-Ami and Yossi Beilin, former Israel Defense Force deputy chief and political newcomer Matan Vilnai, Jewish Agency for Israel chairman and former legislator Avraham Burg, and Knesset member Uzi Baram.

Ben-Ami will take the third spot in Labor’s roster of candidates, behind Barak and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whose slot behind Barak was uncontested.

In addition to Peres, slots have also been reserved for Labor candidates representing women and recent immigrants.

Barak has also sought to reserve a number of top slots for members of other political parties who may form a coalition with Labor before the elections are held.

One of those whom Barak is hoping to woo with a top slot is David Levy, who resigned last year as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister.

At Tuesday’s rally, the commotion began after Massala, who originally was said to have captured the new immigrants seat, was found to have received fewer votes than Russian Sofa Landver at the end of the day.

Massala said that he will petition the High Court of Justice. Colette Avital, the former consul general in New York, is also considering appealing the final placements.

After the results were announced, Massala got up on stage and made an impassioned speech, blaming the party and Barak for turning him into a “political victim” for Landver’s sake.

“I am a member of this party and wanted Ehud Barak to be the next prime minister,” Massala said. “But I am very disappointed. I was made the political victim, thrown out for Sofa Landver.

“I am going to create a public uproar,” he added. “This is a thing that should never happen…I personally will not forgive the Labor party and the chairman.

“A few months ago Barak went to ask forgiveness from the Sephardim. Next thing, he is going to have to ask the Ethiopians for forgiveness.”

The incident was a severe blow to Barak, who had tried to portray the party as a home for all Israelis.

Barak later denied any wrongdoing. The Labor official who oversaw the subsequent recount, Dudu Pidut, said the results “prove without a doubt” that there had not been any vote tampering.

About 60 percent of the eligible 163,000 Labor Party members voted in Monday’s primary.

After the votes were tabulated Tuesday, Barak said he was “proud of the new list.”

Beilin, Baram and Ben-Ami have all been outspokenly dovish regarding the peace process with the Palestinians.

Beilin was an architect of the Oslo accords. Ben-Ami last year backed a motion in the Knesset — which was later defeated — for the establishment of a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

Barak is said to be hoping that Ben-Ami, a Moroccan-born history professor who finished 34th in the 1996 Labor primary, would draw Sephardi voters to the party.

Labor has long been an Ashkenazi stronghold. Derogatory remarks about Sephardim that Labor Knesset member Ori Orr made last year were an embarrassment for the party. As a result of those comments, Orr was temporarily suspended from his parliamentary duties.

It appears that Orr will be bumped from the Knesset in the upcoming elections, after he failed to place high enough in Monday’s primary.

Arab representatives were also squeezed out in the primaries. Nadia Hilu, who also failed to gain a realistic spot, took her cue from Massala and took the stage after him, calling the voting system “a joke,” which discriminates against both women and Arabs.

Because of the way the system is set up, Massala’s loss may have also put another person in danger of losing a spot. Avital, who came in third among the women candidates — after Dalia Yitzik and Yael Dayan — was to have been given the 20th seat on the list, which is reserved for a woman. However, now Avital will be pushed down to the next reserved women’s seat, as Landver will fill out the quota for women in the top 20.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said the Labor Party is not worthy to govern. “This party has taken a sharp left turn, and it is not worthy of holding the fateful negotiations that will decide our future here.”

However, Monday’s big winner, Ben-Ami, rejected the criticism that the party is too left-leaning: “My position is very clear: Left is beautiful, whereas right is about destroying jobs as we saw in the last two years. Left is peace, whereas right is confrontation. Left is good relations with the United States, the right has destroyed the relations with the United States. Left is investing in education whereas the right has drastically cut budgets in education. So what’s the big deal about [the] right?”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

(Tags: Israel, Politics, Knesset, Elections)

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