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Labor Leader To Press Welfare Agenda

Israel’s newest prime ministerial contender was in New York last week trying to woo American Jewish leaders by telling them he does not want his country to be like theirs. Moreover, he said, he’s not alone in his view.

Amir Peretz, chairman of Israel’s powerful Histadrut labor federation, said in an interview last week that growing numbers of Israelis are coming to share his anger at the harsh consequences of the unbridled free-market policies pursued by the current government. Indeed, he said, the next Knesset elections will hinge on health care, pension and housing policies rather than on Gaza and Yasser Arafat.

And when the elections come, the gritty, Moroccan-born union boss is hoping for a chance to claim the driver’s seat. That, he said, is why he agreed last May, at the urging of Shimon Peres, to merge his tiny One Nation Party into the Labor Party he quit angrily a decade ago. He is now hoping to become the party’s leader and thus a potential future prime minister.

“I believe the next elections will depend on social and welfare policies,” Peretz told the Forward in an interview in New York, in the midst of a series of meetings with government officials, bankers, union leaders and Jewish organizational heads.

Peretz, a former mayor of the Negev town of Sderot, said he would not vie for the Labor Party’s chairmanship at next year’s party convention if Peres runs. However, he said he definitely would enter the race if the elder leader decides to retire.

Peretz’s recent decision to rejoin the Labor party has presented him with an immediate challenge. He stipulated in his party’s merger agreement that he will not support Labor entering a national unity government unless the economic policies of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are abandoned. At the same time, he realizes that his demands are likely to be ignored in the current coalition negotiations.

“I’m afraid the party leaders are ready to sacrifice everything to ensure that the Gaza disengagement plan goes ahead,” he said. “For me to be in government with Bibi Netanyahu or [Shinui leader] Tommy Lapid, those two extreme capitalists, is like asking me as a Jew to abandon my religion.” For that reason, Peretz said, he would prefer that Labor support Sharon’s diplomatic initiatives in the Knesset without joining the coalition.

Peretz left the Labor Party in 1994, together with his longtime ally Haim Ramon, after the two engineered the historic defeat of Labor’s leadership within the Histadrut. Ramon returned to the party a year later, but Peretz remained outside. Peretz admits that his leverage in the current coalition talks is limited, since his merger with Labor takes effect only in January. Besides, he realizes Peres is determined to join the government.

However, Peretz made it clear that once he joins Labor early next year, he intends to push his social-democratic agenda without compromise. He believes that will give him an edge over his potential competitors, who lack his appeal to the working-class voters whom Labor needs to woo.

On security and the Palestinian issue, Peretz’s views are close to the Labor mainstream. He notes that he has favored Palestinian statehood for two decades. More recently, he has attacked the Sharon government for continually lamenting the absence of a negotiating partner. Peace, he said, echoing a favorite line of the late Yitzhak Rabin, is made with enemies, not friends. He refused to specify whether he would engage Arafat.

A relative newcomer to Israel-Diaspora relations, Peretz acknowledged that the American Jewish community leaders he met on this trip seemed more interested in Israel’s security than in the plight of its poor. While several of the approximately 20 members of he Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wondered about the usefulness of strikes in a time of conflict, they appeared moved by his description of the dire economic difficulties facing a growing a number of Israelis, sources said.

Peretz insisted that economic inequality is a security issue. When 40% of the work force earns less than the minimum wage of $750 a month and the gap between rich and poor keeps widening, he said, the country’s social fabric is in jeopardy, threatening its will to fight.

“It’s unacceptable to see that Israelis are equal when they go to war but are less and less equal in their daily lives,” he said.

Peretz said he is not against a free market as long as it does not become a “slave market.” He used his visit here to meet with New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and a group of bankers and try to convince them that a new $500 million equity fund in Israel should invest in worker-friendly companies.

He claims Netanyahu is bent on destroying the unions and is using the overall security argument to undermine strikes and demonstrations protesting his “Thatcher and Reagan-plus policies.”

“We don’t need an American model in Israel,” he said. “What we need is more solidarity. I’m not ashamed to say it, and more and more people agree.”

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