The Israel Labor Party has had these moments before, when a man on horseback arrives to take the fading party by storm and promise it a new lease on life. Two years ago it was Amram Mitzna, the brainy ex-general-turned-mayor who emerged from obscurity to seize the party’s reins and lead it to a disastrous electoral defeat, after which he slipped mercifully back into obscurity. Four years before that it was Ehud Barak, another brainy ex-general, who led the party back to power, proceeded to bungle his way into a bruising intifada for which he was summarily tossed out of office, and has since refused to slip out of sight.
Each of these would-be champions, and a few others who have tried along the way, came from the same basic mold: military men attempting to recapture the magic of Labor’s last real hero, Yitzhak Rabin. Like Rabin they emerged from the heart of Israel’s military establishment, which tends to be considerably more pragmatic and dovish than the electorate at large. Unlike Rabin, they had not spent decades out of uniform, earning the public’s trust and learning the pitfalls of politics. Perhaps most important, they came on the scene in an era when Israeli politics has become deeply polarized and tribal. Labor is firmly identified with the Ashkenazic elites that founded the state. Likud is seen as the party of the rising Sephardic majority, which wants its day in the sun. Nothing Labor’s leaders have said or done has managed to break the image.
There’s no guarantee that Amir Peretz, Labor’s latest champion, will fare any differently. True, early polls show him boosting the party’s strength , even before he’s had a chance to speak to the public and articulate a vision from his new perch. But that could be due merely to the novelty of his outsider candidacy as a Moroccan-born Sephardic Jew from a poor town who has no college degree or military medals. It could be that the Peretz era will be just one more way station on the Labor Party’s road to decline.
If Peretz does have a shot at making a difference and turning Labor around, it’s partly because he’s worked his way up the political ladder for decades; he’s not likely to melt with the first rain or needlessly alienate his friends. It’s partly because, in an era of identity politics, he can speak for Israel’s new majority.
We suspect, though, that part of what has captured Israel’s imagination is Peretz’s message. He speaks to working Israelis about their mounting economic distress. He puts the blame where it belongs — on the neoconservative ideological twaddle of the free-marketeers who have dominated Israel’s public discourse for years. And, unlike the brainy generals who came before him, he doesn’t promise clever new inventions. His platform is essentially a return to the social-democratic principles that worked so well for so long until they were so disastrously tossed aside. American liberals should be watching him closely.