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Sol Salbe: Analysis - The Peretz Ascendancy

[Apologies for the delay in getting this item out. I appreciate the messages asking for information about Peretz’s election. Unfortunately I have been away on urgent family matters. Furthermore I have taken several days to compile this report as I wanted to ensure accuracy in terms of both facts and analysis. As expected some people, such as Israeli journalist Shraga Elam have already put out a contrary perspective. That is to be expected and respected – no one has a monopoly on being right. I urge you to read it as understanding the Israeli political scene is vital for anybody with interest in the Middle East. –Sol.]


The Peretz Ascendancy

Sol Salbe

It is a rare occasion when commentators right across the Israeli political spectrum are in an agreement. But the past week or so have seen doing just that. While few matched the hyperbole of Israel Radio's Hanan Kristal, who said the “the tsunami in the Labor Party will become a hurricane through the entire system,” they all, from the Marxist Left to the hard Right and everyone in between agreed that the election of Amir Peretz as Labour Party leader is highly significant.

There are various why so many commentators have got so excited over his election. For a start Peretz wasn’t meant to win. The ballot is similar to the Australian Democrats system with all financial party members voting. All the opinion polls amongst those eligible to vote indicated that in four-(or three) horserace Peretz was going to come in first. But as none of the candidates would have reached the 40 per cent mark there was going to be a run-off election and that in that one Peretz was trailing badly compared to the outgoing party leader, the 82-year-old Shimon Peres.

But the generational change (Peretz is 53 – he was one year old when an up-and-coming military officer named Ariel Sharon was introduced to Defence Director-General Peres!) is only one factor. Amir Peretz is different in so many ways. For most of its history and certainly for past 31 years the major political parties have been led by either generals, or members of the defence establishment, or leaders of the pre-state military organisations (deemed terrorist by the British occupation forces.) Peretz, who reached the rank of a captain during his military service, has been a trade union leader instead. He is also a Mizrahi (Eastern) Jew in a country dominated by Ashkenazi (Western) Jews.

Peretz’s politics are also different. His fighting platform highlights the issues of social justice and looking after the weaker sections of society (the gap between poor and rich in Israel is bigger than any other advanced industrial country). At the same time he has taken a clear cut stand in favour of negotiations with the Palestinians, unequivocally calling for an end to the Occupation and a Palestinian state.

But it is the interaction of all these factors that is responsible for the way his elevation stunned Israel. As the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) was quick to point out, the Labour Party has been led by a Mizrahi before. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was leader in 2001-2002. But the Iraqi-born General Ben-Eliezer was much more part of the establishment who also had impeccable military credentials. Moroccan Jews are the biggest group among the Mizrahim and Peretz is certainly the first of them to be elected to lead a major party.

Neither is Peretz the first Labour leader to argue in favour of negotiations and a Palestinian state. Amram Mitzna who succeeded Ben-Eliezer also spoke about negotiations and a Palestinian state. But his view was much more unilateral. If there wasn’t to be a successful outcome to the negotiations within a year, Israel would withdraw to self-declared borders keeping some of the choicest bits of land.

Again the differences are telling: Mitzna had been earlier parachuted to the position of Mayor of Haifa as soon as he took off his general’s uniform. His pro-peace campaign came out of left field. He had taken a literally courageous stand at the very beginning of the second Intifada (Placing himself between demonstrating Palestinian Israelis and the riot police ensuring a peaceful outcome) but he did not have an established pro-peace record. As his campaign went on he turned down the volume of his pro-peace message. Peretz on the other hand was talking to PLO members some twenty years ago when it was still illegal to do so. He was also a founding member of Peace Now and helped found the Human rights organisation B’Tselem. Like Mitzna (and very much in contrast with Peres) he is a supporter of the Geneva Accord which calls for a Palestinian state on the entire area of the Occupied Territories (with a 1:1 land transfer) to cover some areas of Jerusalem and major settlement blocks.

His reasoning for supporting the pro-peace stance has a better chance of resonating with ordinary Israelis particularly among the working class and unemployed Mizrahim (currently the Likud’s strongest supporters.) Peretz’s long-term view has been that the security and social issues cannot be separated. He quotes the Likud’s first leader Menachem Begin who said that the people of Israel gave him a train ticket to ride. But Begin abused his mandate and took the train to the settlements. “…the money did not go to the slums; it went all to the settlements. We should end the cruel occupation, we should disengage from Gaza, but that is not all; we should re-engage with Israeli society, with the values of humanity and social justice."

In this way Peretz is following Yitzhak Rabin’s agenda. But this time it is after a long period of ultra-Thatcherite policies carried out by the Likud, especially with Binyamin Netanyahu as Treasurer which have severely hurt the traditional Likud supporters. Mizrahim have generally regarded the peace movement as an Ashkenazi affair. They may longer do so with Peretz at the helm.

Even the moral argument puts the interest of Israelis first:

“I see the occupation as an immoral act, first of all. The occupation in my view is not a territorial question but one of morality. I want to end the occupation not because of international or Palestinian pressure, but because I see in it an Israeli interest.

“Occupation has the quality... of influencing the occupier as well as the occupied. Our children are sent on an impossible mission -- to rule over another people, and are asked to cope with impossible situations... When a nation rules for 38 years over another people, moral norms become twisted.”

A senior reporter with Haaretz, Akiva Eldar outlined the implications of this kind of world outlook:

“When Shimon Peres' supporters ran out of conventional arms in the battle against Amir Peretz, they brought out their Judgment Day weapon: ‘Picture Amir Peretz sitting in the White House and having a talk with President Bush about the road map,’ they said mockingly.

“Now, in the wake of the sweet victory, Peretz's camp can snort. If Peretz becomes prime minister, they say, he will fold up the map and save the expense of traveling to Washington. He has promised them that the day after he steps into the Prime Minister's Office, he will invite Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for direct negotiations on a final-status agreement - no more unilateral withdrawals, an end to the season of dictates, an end to belligerence, an end to conditioning the continuation of the peace process on ‘the dismantling of the terror infrastructures.’”

Peretz’s victory is no guarantee of success. While he has a good track of winning, the obstacles in his path are enormous. He has many enemies within his own party who resent power being taken from them. They had opposed his candidacy with unprecedented venom. Some have already started leaking their complaints to the media about his “extreme left view” in welcoming Arab non-Zionist parties in his future coalition. The business community may object to him rolling back the neo-liberal agenda. On that score it is likely that Peretz will severely curtail his plans to fit in with the employers. [The track record of similar populist leaders with comparable programs like President Luiz Inácio Lula of Brazil would certainly indicate so. The Histadrut Workers Federation’s (which Peretz still heads) own track record in regard to foreign workers is also far from glorious.]

Even with the backing of his own party Peretz chances of election are limited. He faces a most experienced and wily opponent in Ariel Sharon. There are also elements among the Palestinians who know that it they launched suicide bombings against civilians in Israel they would mobilise support for the hard right. [Some of these may prefer a fight to the finish rather than a compromise but even the hard-right former chief-of staff Moshe “Boogi” Ya’alon expressed concerns about some settlers in the army deliberately provoking the Palestinian organisations with this in mind.]

Even if elected in terms of the Palestinian issue the obstacles are even more insurmountable. The generals and the defence establishment run their own policy paying scant attention to government’s wishes. The difficulties encountered by Ehud Barak (who was a former chief-of-staff) with his dealing with the IDF are nothing compare to what a “mere civilian”like Peretz could expect. One should also remember that at least until the beginning of 2009 a Peretz government will be at odds with the political wishes of the White House.

It is far more likely that the impact of a Peretz government would be modest: moving the wall/fence to the Green Line (or close to it) easing the harsh conditions for the Palestinian, making a breakthrough here and there. But as Mitchell Plitnick of the US Jewish Voice for Peace pointed out:

“An economically insecure society tends to become more nationalistic. A more equitable Israeli economy would be a much more fertile ground for real change and real compromise with the Palestinians.”

The last word, however, should go to the somewhat optimistic Eldar who looks at the best case scenario:

“If Peretz adheres to his political and moral beliefs, the revolution in the Labor Party will not end with an upgrading of the status of the economy and social issues on its agenda. If he has the strength to confront its power-hungry members, Labor can anticipate a revolution in the political arena as well. It will return to its place at the head of the peace camp, and will no longer be partner to a government that considers the peace process a prize for the Arabs, and to a policy of positing conditions and obstacles on the way to negotiations. For the first time, it is headed by a leader who did not participate in the march of folly of the settlements, neither as an army general nor as a government minister.

“Ten years after Rabin's assassination, we have an Israeli political leader who considers the occupation a moral, security and economic burden, a man who is in no need of internal or external pressure to leave the territories. Finally, peace has emerged from the back benches and returned to center stage.

“Palestinian neighbors: You have a partner, don't let the fanatics harm him.”


[The independent Middle East News Service concentrates on providing alternative information chiefly from Israeli sources. It is sponsored by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the AJDS. These are expressed in its own statements]

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