Peretz, the Next David (or Mitzna)

By Leonard Fein

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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The Hebrew word for “periphery” is “periferiah.” Last week, in the stunning victory of Amir Peretz over Shimon Peres for the chairmanship of the Labor Party — or, as accurately, in the stunning loss of Shimon Peres to Amir Peretz — it was the periferiah that moved to Israel’s center political stage. The biggest revolution in Israeli politics since the ascent of Menahem Begin in 1977, the analysts are saying. And they are right — if the counter-revolutionaries can be kept at bay.

Who knows? Israeli politics has a way of nibbling away at its overnight wonders; that is, when it does not downright gulp down. Remember Amram Mitzna?

David keeps making his rhapsodic entrance to general astonishment, then applause, but oh, my, there is no Goliath, the slingshot strategy won’t work, there is instead a coterie of puffed-up ex-generals whose sense of entitlement has long since gone stale and a band of precociously fatigued younger pols, all pretending that somehow they can maneuver the resurrection of the nearly comatose Labor Party — if only they can get rid of the Moroccan-born upstart.

But hold: Propriety demands that we begin with Peres. He will be remembered in generations to come as one of the seminal figures in Israel’s history, a man whose contributions to Israel’s development over the decades, and in virtually every sector, are second to none.

He will be remembered as well as the perennial loser — in general elections, in the election for Israel’s presidency and in the election for party chairmanship, variously to Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Katzav, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and now to Peretz. Peres always has done better at the podium than at the polling place, at the plenum than in the public square.

Alas, he also will be remembered for a handful of remarkably important mistakes, such as his authorization of the very first West Bank settlement — Kedumim, in 1975, when he was defense minister — and also his ill-chosen military response as prime minister to horrific bus bombings in Israel on the eve of general elections in May 1996.

In offering Peres the second spot on the Labor ticket in the elections that is likely to take place this spring, and proposing that Peres take the lead in shaping Israel’s diplomacy, as he has, Peretz is being more than merely canny; he is proposing the full use of one of Israel’s principal natural resources.

By Israeli political standards, Peretz — five years older than George W. Bush and than Bill Clinton — is a youngster. By Israeli standards, he is also an outsider, even though he was a captain in the Israeli military and was seriously wounded in 1974, was elected mayor of his hometown of Sederot when he was 30, has been a Knesset member for 17 years and has been chairman of the Histadrut, Israel’s very political trade union movement, for the past 10 years. So what does “outsider” mean?

Peretz’s outsider status derives in no small measure from his Moroccan origins — he came to Israel when he was 4 — but it has other sources, too. He has a high school education only. He has staked out, to a remarkable degree, his own path and his very own power base.

He often seems a man possessed, driven by both personal ambition and a genuine passion for social justice. More than any other recent leader, Peretz — a veteran of Peace Now — “gets” the connection between domestic social and economic policy and peace policy. He keeps the dietary laws and chants the Kiddush on Friday evening, a rarity in the upper echelons of Labor. He is plainly different from what has become the broken run of Labor’s mill. And he is from the periphery.

But, there’s an old story about two Jews in the Soviet Union. One tells the other that he is moving to Argentina. The other replies: “Argentina? But that’s so far!” “From what?” says the first.

Israel’s periphery exists not only in distant towns such as Sederot; it exists around the corner from skyscraping Tel Aviv, and in all the cities and villages of Israel’s Arabs, and in Bnei Brak. Old people and religious people, Palestinians and hungry kids, and, above all, working-class Mizrachim, the very people who abandoned Labor for Menachem Begin in 1977. All these are potential supporters.

It is easy to see and to say that Peretz is a breath of fresh air, especially in the Labor Party but only a bit less in the Israeli political system at large. But the truth is that Israel needs more than a breath of fresh air; given the near collapse of its public services, including both health and education, the truly obscene gap — now larger even than America’s — between rich and poor, given a poverty rate that is one of the highest in the developed world and, for children, the highest, Israel needs full-scale resuscitation. That is what Amir Peretz has promised.

Whether if elected as prime minister he would be able to fulfill that promise is, of course, an open question. For the time being, the real question is not whether he would be able to, but whether he will be permitted to — that is, whether his combination of ambition and bluntness, of the zeal and the social purpose that have brought him this far, will enable him to survive the sniping that is bound now to occur. And remember: The ex-generals may not know how to govern, but they still know how to shoot.

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