Vote in Huge Israeli Trade Union May Signal Wider Political Change

Challenger Haim Ramon hopes to shake loose Labor's old-boy grip

FOR more than 70 years, elections in the Histadrut, Israel's monster trade union, have been little more than a formality. The Labor Party, predictably enough, has walked away with all the jobs.

Next month's vote, however, will be different. And the challenge posed by a rebellious former minister in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government could foreshadow a fundamental shake-up of Israeli politics, according to some analysts.

Haim Ramon, who was health minister until he resigned two months ago, is mounting an independent campaign to wrest control of the Histadrut from its traditional Labor bosses. And private polls, he says, tell him he has a good chance of succeeding.

With an eye to the future, ``Ramon is pioneering a new political system in Israel,'' says Danny Ben-Simon, a political commentator for the daily Davar, which is owned by the Histadrut. ``Because he doesn't think that the current system,'' in which national security is the defining political issue, ``reflects the real divisions in Israeli society.''

Avram Burg, a political ally on the left wing of Labor, agrees. ``One day after peace comes, the coalitions of the past 30 years will disappear and new ones will arise,'' he says.

``This move by Ramon is one of the first attempts'' at such a new grouping.

Ramon's declared reason for running is to reform the Histadrut, a sprawling, largely bankrupt bureaucracy that is widely unpopular among Israelis and seen as riddled with corruption and cronyism. ``The Histadrut leadership stopped taking care of peoples' interests many years ago,'' Ramon says. ``They just take care of their own power.''

With 2 million members in heavily unionized Israel, the Histadrut is much more than a trade union. Founded before the state, it comprises sports teams, cultural associations, a huge industrial holding company, pension funds, and - most importantly -

the largest health care fund in the country, to which about 70 percent of Israelis belong.

Many, if not most, Histadrut members are members only because they have to be in order to join that fund, the Kupat Holim. The alternative, private health care funds that have sprung up, are more costly and beyond the reach of most people.

As health minister, Ramon introduced a sweeping health care reform package last year that would have cut the link between the union and the health fund, allowing Histadrut members to choose their health fund and allowing people to choose Kupat Holim without joining the union.

Under pressure from Histadrut bosses, who feared that such a move would lead to a severe loss of membership, the Labor government dropped the bill. In fury, Ramon resigned from the Cabinet last February.

But Ramon's reformist zeal, brightly though it burns, cannot obscure his own political ambitions. The Histadrut, both his critics and his friends say, would be a good launching pad for an assault on the prime ministership one day. Especially since the prime minister will in the future be elected directly by the voters, not at the head of a political party.

Ramon is often cited as heir apparent to the current leaders of the Labor party, Mr. Rabin and Shimon Peres, who are in their 70s. But with both men apparently planning to contest the 1996 elections, the Labor leadership will not be vacant until the end of the century.

In his bid to become general secretary of the Histadrut, Ramon has taken two Labor members of Knesset (parliament) with him, and secured the support of the left wing Meretz coalition and the ultraorthodox Shas party, whose constituency is generally lower class, and which shares Ramon's social agenda.

His image and message are modern, principled, and socially caring, and could provide a focus around which a new political grouping could coalesce if he does well in the May 10 elections.

His allies on the left of Labor support him privately, even if they have not followed him out of the party, and prominent moderates in the opposition Likud have publicly wished him well.

Such backing can only strengthen Ramon in his conviction that Israel's traditional political structure, in which security issues cut across the left-right divide, will soon be outdated.

A victory in the Histadrut could be ``a very, very significant turn of events, a major watershed in Israeli politics,'' suggests Peter Medding, who teaches politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

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