In a Stormy Year, Peretz Raises and Then Forfeits Left’s Hopes

Anger Mounts as Labor’s Once-fiery Leader Acquiesces in Rightist’s Entry to Olmert Cabinet

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.
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Two soldiers wearing olive-drab ski masks against the autumn chill stood last weekend at a checkpoint on the road into Bir Nabalah, a West Bank village north of Jerusalem. Palestinian cars waited in line 100 yards away. One by one, they moved up to the checkpoint, where one of the Israeli soldiers glanced inside each car, sometimes waving it by and sometimes asking for identification papers.

“What are you checking for?” asked a volunteer from Machsom Watch, a leftwing Israeli women’s organization that sends observers to checkpoints to report on human-rights issues.

“Nothing definable,” the soldier replied, nonplussed. To the volunteer, that uncertain answer seemed to be clear evidence that the checkpoint accomplished little beyond making Palestinian life difficult. The drivers, she argued, are not entering Israel but traveling from one part of the West Bank to another; the security value is not obvious.

Military sources told the Forward that the checkpoint is meant to stop terrorists who can and do slip into Israel proper via Bir Nabalah. Local Palestinians countered that would-be infiltrators can circumvent the roadblock by crossing the hills on foot.

Whatever its security merits, the Bir Nabalah checkpoint does prove one thing: Having appeared there last June — a month after Labor Party leader Amir Peretz became defense minister — it has become one more symbol of the Israeli left’s burning disillusionment with Peretz. The onetime trade union chief captured the leadership of Labor one year ago, promising a new wave of activism and energy on the left. He’s since become the latest Israeli symbol of political haplessness.

Last Sunday, while the Machsom Watch volunteer was visiting Bir Nabalah, the Labor Party’s Central Committee was meeting in Tel Aviv. At Peretz’s urging, the committee voted overwhelmingly not to pull Labor out of the government — despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s addition of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party to his ruling coalition, and of its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, to his security Cabinet. Peretz’s very public acquiescence in the Lieberman appointment only added to the despair in his natural constituency.

Peretz’s November 2005 victory in a party primary over octogenarian Shimon Peres appeared to resuscitate a party that was commonly seen as having lost direction and purpose. Peretz, a trade unionist from the poor Negev town of Sderot, put socioeconomic issues back on Labor’s agenda.

He also promised a more clearly dovish direction for Labor. Unlike the aging Peres, he had no mixed feelings about the settlement effort; he was unabashedly opposed to it. “Amir Peretz doesn’t want to be an occupier…. He doesn’t want to rule over another people, not with out posts and not with bypass roads…. He believes that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is immoral,” his spokesman told me as a turbulent national election campaign gained momentum.

Peretz’s ascent reshuffled Israeli politics. It spurred then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to quit the Likud and create his centrist Kadima ticket. It also spurred Peres to abandon Labor, his home of over half a century, and move to Kadima. After a stroke felled Sharon in January, Olmert took over as Kadima’s prime ministerial candidate.

When Olmert won the March election, he immediately sought to bring Labor into his coalition. But with his pro-business agenda, Olmert resisted Peretz’s demand for an economic role. Instead, he unexpectedly offered to make Peretz his defense minister. Equally unexpected, the Labor leader accepted, despite his glaring lack of experience in military matters. It’s widely assumed that he hoped to strengthen his security credentials ahead of a future race for prime minister.

At that point, those who expected Labor to return to its social democratic roots were starting to feel let down. But Labor did win a promise of a staged increase in the minimum wage. It also managed to keep Lieberman, the firebrand who has called for disenfranchising Israeli Arabs and bombing Egypt, on the opposition benches.

And for doves, Peretz’s role as defense minister did have apparent advantages. In contrast to ex-generals, they hoped, he would assert strong civilian control over the military. As the minister responsible for the West Bank, he could ease living conditions for Palestinians. He promised action against the small settlement outposts that had sprung up on hilltops over the past decade without government approval — starting with those whose residents had been involved in violence against neighboring Palestinians.

But the war in Lebanon last summer raised doubts about Peretz’s capability to handle military issues and to stand up to generals. The initial decision to launch a major air campaign against Hezbollah had come just hours after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border. The war initially enjoyed broad public support. But Peretz, Olmert and their top generals soon came under heavy criticism for lack of a clear battle plan or achievable diplomatic goals in the war.

Further damaging Peretz’s reputation, the budget that was approved by the government after the war postponed one stage of the promised minimum wage increase, Peretz’s signature economic vow.

As for Peretz’s promises regarding the West Bank, they’ve yet to be realized. In mid-October, the defense minister ordered the army to prepare plans for evacuating several outposts — even while reportedly holding talks with settlement leaders on a compromise under which some outposts would be legalized in return for voluntary removal of others. Asked this week about Peretz’s intentions on the issue, his spokesman did not respond before press time.

Meanwhile, the number of checkpoints in the West Bank has risen to 83 in September from 66 in April, just before Peretz took office, according to a recent report by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Asked to comment, the IDF Spokesman’s office sought official numbers for two days but was unable to provide any. A spokeswoman noted, however, that temporary checkpoints are sometimes erected in response to intelligence warnings that a terrorist will be passing along a specific route. It is not clear whether the OCHA figures include such temporary roadblocks.

What is clear is that the left has lost faith in Peretz. “A total failure,” exclaimed Knesset member Ran Cohen of the leftwing Meretz party. “Who would have believed that under Peretz, not one illegal outpost would be evacuated?” He added that the “increase in the number of checkpoints… also doesn’t testify to great success in relation to the Palestinian civilian population.”

Now Peretz will be sitting at the Cabinet table with Lieberman. On Monday, following the Labor approval vote, the Knesset certified Lieberman’s appointment as deputy prime minister and minister in charge of strategic affairs — a title indicating responsibility for dealing with the Iranian threat. Science and Culture Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who had led the opposition to Lieberman within Labor, quit the Cabinet. “I couldn’t sit in a government with a minister who preaches racism,” he wrote to Olmert in his resignation letter. On the other hand, Labor lawmaker Ephraim Sneh insisted that Lieberman will have little influence. Sneh, who was appointed deputy defense minister this week in a gesture to Labor (and a crutch to Peretz), said: “We hold the Defense Ministry, in charge of preparing Israel [militarily]. Tzipi Livni is responsible for diplomacy. Olmert gave [Lieberman] a nice title…. He is in charge of talking.”

Yet while Lieberman talks, Labor has lost a clear message. The central committee vote was widely taken to show that Peretz had a firm grip on the party machine — if on little else — and that most of Labor’s legislators feared losing a grip on power more than anything. Peretz’s slim chances of restoring his political fortunes depend now, more than ever, on using the power he has to convince those who once cheered him that he still can fulfill his promises.

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