Labor Boss Finds Himself Kingmaker of the Israeli Left

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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TEL AVIV — Amir Peretz, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, is a hot commodity these days, to the apparent surprise of just about everybody but him. He’s emerged as the main threat to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial budget reforms. His name is spoken with awe on the streets of Israel’s urban slums and development towns. Politicians in Labor and the parties to its left talk about him as the white knight who will rescue them from oblivion.

Heady stuff for the head of an institution usually thought of as a hidebound dinosaur. For that matter, he’s not even a member of the Labor Party.

Will the labor boss ride to the Labor Party’s rescue? He isn’t tipping his hand. Speaking to the Forward in his Knesset office in Jerusalem, all he’ll say is that he “must do the step that will stop the collapse of the peace camp.”

The truth is, for most of the last decade, the name most often associated with impending oblivion has been Peretz, not Labor. Once a promising young Labor Knesset member, he made a fateful move nine years ago that was generally expected to end his career. Together with his ally Haim Ramon, Peretz mounted an insurgent campaign in 1994 to take over the Histadrut, challenging an incumbent slate hand-picked by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. When the insurgents won the union vote, they became virtual pariahs in the party, which had viewed the labor federation as a private fiefdom for nearly a century.

Settling into union headquarters, the duo began a quixotic campaign to reform the federation’s bureaucracy, pare down nonessential operations and revive its fighting spirit. Few believed they would succeed. The union had been in decline for generations, dropping from three-fourths of the work force to just over 30%. It had just lost its strongest recruiting draw — its Kupat Holim health plan, the nation’s largest — thanks to a reform engineered by Ramon himself the year before.

A year later Ramon turned around and jumped back into the party leadership, joining Rabin’s Cabinet as interior minister. But Peretz opted to stay in the Histadrut, moving up from head of the trade unions department to general chairman. In 1999 he cut his last ties to Labor, resigning his party membership and forming his own tiny political bloc, One Nation (Am Echad), which won two seats in that year’s Knesset elections.

Today, at 51, Peretz finds himself in the unlikely position of kingmaker, while his erstwhile partner Ramon is struggling for political survival. Polls released last month show that Labor voters, asked which politicians “represent people like yourself,” picked Peretz two-to-one over any possible rival. Shimon Peres, the Labor Party chairman, is openly trying to coax Peretz back into the fold. Meretz, to Labor’s left, has made its own offer. Peretz says he’ll decide his future later this month.

His rising star is partly due to good timing. A troubled economy, battered by a global slump and three years of violence, has forced the Likud government to adopt highly unpopular austerity measures, leaving an opening for a populist troublemaker. At the same time, the cease-fire has shoved security off the front pages, making the economy the big story.

Last month’s much-publicized “mothers’ march” against austerity, led by a single mother from the Negev, Vicki Knafo, landed in Peretz’s lap like ripe fruit. He’s grabbed the issue with rare skill, offering her money and logistical aid — even sending teenagers from the union’s Noar Oved youth movement to organize a summer camp for the mothers’ kids — while avoiding hogging her limelight. Knafo “is an authentic leader,” Peretz said. “I truly hope the women will win. We’ll give them all the support, whatever the women ask of us.”

But if Peretz was in the right place at the right time, he was also the right man. Despite his dovish views, he has positioned his tiny party as a centrist force, focusing on social issues and staying out of security debates. For Am Echad’s first Knesset run in 1999, his No. 2 was a hawkish ex-Likudnik. His current slate includes a defector from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and an Ethiopian Jew. He’s often cited as a potential partner in a Sharon-led government of the right.

“I am a peace person, and I fully support the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said. But, he added, “In Israel if you ask someone if they are left or right, they will tell you about Abu Mazen or Arafat, not about single mothers.”

Peretz never fit the standard image of an Israeli dove. Born in Morocco, he came to Israel with his family at age 4 and was raised in Sderot, a Negev development town. A military career was cut short at 26 when he was badly wounded — he still walks with a limp — and he returned to Sderot and became a moshav farmer. Active in the union, he joined the local workers’ council. By age 30 he was mayor. In 1988 he ran in Labor’s first open Knesset primaries, pitching himself as an outsider — a young, working-class Sephardi Jew from a Negev development town — and won.

In the Knesset, Peretz gravitated toward the dovish group that had gathered around Ramon and Yossi Beilin, but even there he stood out. Where their economic views tended toward centrist neoliberalism — freer markets, less regulation — Peretz was more of an old-fashioned, street-smart socialist. His views still color the way he runs the union federation.

For one thing, he says, it’s not enough for a union just to represent its members. “In my view, we must be a social movement,” he told the Forward. “In Israel we have foreign workers who work for very low wages without social rights, and they eventually influence Israeli workers and workers from the territories, whose rights are devalued.”

Israel, Peretz insists, can’t afford high levels of inequality. “The State of Israel demands from its citizens to sacrifice its most precious thing,” he said. “All our sons are recruited into the army. On the front we are totally equal. When they return from the field, the state is not committed to anything. Our solidarity is the guarantee for our existence.”

But solidarity cuts two ways, he admits. In a globalized world, with unions on the defensive everywhere, “employers are an address for negotiation,” not class struggle. “I don’t like to cry with employers,” he said. “They should see the labor force as a human value, an investment — no less than they invest in equipment and technology.” And, he adds, “I think that the Histadrut should examine its role in the equation.”

Can the Histadrut be a springboard to national leadership in the 21st century? Peretz won’t talk openly about his ambitions, but he drops some broad hints. “My dream,” he said, “is to do what Menachem Begin did in 1977, when he made a big change in the Israeli political spectrum.” Begin, he said, led a social revolution, mobilizing the disenfranchised from the development towns and the slums. “Begin gave them a feeling they would be part of the game. Begin received a social ticket — but he traveled with that ticket to the West Bank. My dream is to travel with a social train to peace.”

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