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Can Amir Peretz Bring Labor to Heel?

After reading some of Yossi Beilin’s less than enthusiastic comments about Amir Peretz, I thought my rousing recent posts about his victory in the Labor Party leadership contest might’ve been a tad too much. I thought I’d better write a more cautionary post since not only does Peretz have some political baggage himself as leader of what Beilin views as a thuggish Histadrut, but much of the former top leadership of Labor, including all of the MKs (none of whom supported him), appear to be working to undermine him.

But Mitchell Plitnick of Jewish Voice for Peace has already done my work for me in New Labor Party in Israel. He has written a carefully calibrated article which presents Peretz’s promise as great, but the pitfalls standing in the way achieving that promise as very deep:

It would be foolish to see Peretz’s victory as anything other than a very positive development…But it would be equally foolish to believe that it is going to dramatically alter the course of events in the near term.

Even if Peretz does become Prime Minister next year, he is unlikely to make too many major changes on the ground. He will not pull down the wall, though he may well alter its route even further. He is too aware of the mood of the Israeli public to consider any return of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper and is also unlikely to be too dramatic in terms of dividing Jerusalem. He will not prov[ide] a quick fix to the vexing Israel-Palestine conflict.

But a Peretz victory in March could have better effect down the road…If his social reforms are to have any hope of coming to fruition, the likely place he will reallocate funds from is the settlement enterprise…Peretz may be able to weaken the settler movement significantly.

Plitnick also notes the awkward “fit” between Peretz, the avowed socialist, and those Labor ‘bigwigs’ who’ve essentially turned their backs on Labor’s socialist roots:

Amir Peretz is fairly described as a man whose political ideology is rooted in socialism. His own rhetoric has reflected an idealizing of Labor’s past as a socialist party. This romantic view of the Labor Party is somewhat misguided…Labor has steadily moved away from much of the socialist ideology. Peretz, in fact, brings socialism much more to the forefront of Labor ideology in Israel than perhaps it has ever been, certainly much more so than it has been in many decades.

Peretz will move to rebuild the social safety net in Israel, and will also work to narrow the gap between rich and poor, a gap which is the largest of any Western-style country. Whether he can really impact such a dramatic reversal of direction for the Israeli economy is questionable. There will be considerable resistance from many sectors, not least of which will be within his own party — Labor embraced the neoliberal economic model with a passion in the 1980s and 1990s. But if he can have even some effect in this regard, it would be hopeful, and not only for the Israeli public, as we will see below.

Here is Plitnick’s assessment of Peretz’s chances of making a real breakthrough in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Peretz has been emphatic in his opposition to Ariel Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” program. This is noteworthy, especially because the concept of unilateral separation, like the idea for the West Bank Wall, originated not with Sharon and Likud, but with the Labor Party under Ehud Barak. Peretz has clearly stated that he would wish to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas, without the brokering of the United States or anyone else, and hammer out a final status deal. Of course, this is a nice-sounding statement which will be difficult to bring to fruition for any number of reasons. Still, it is clear that Peretz recognizes the damage Sharon’s unilateral moves have done in undermining the moderate Abbas, and how that makes real progress more difficult. Peretz is a long-time member of Peace Now…His approach to the conflict with the Palestinians is entirely different not only from Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, but also from Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. The BBC quotes Peretz as saying, “I see the occupation as an immoral act, first of all.

Finally, Plitnick portrays the tremendous obstacles in his path from within his own party. Peretz, as noted below, never served as an IDF officer. This makes him immediately suspect in the eyes of those Labor politicians who were senior officers. And I understand that Peretz returns the favor in not finding much to admire in them either. Equally problematic are the senior Labor politicians, including MKs, who never supported his candidacy and are working at the present moment to undermine him:

There is great possibility for real change in Amir Peretz’s election as head of Labor. But that change remains far off and this is only the first, and not the greatest, of challenges that lay ahead for him. Peretz’s sincere socialism and genuine advocacy for the working class will obviously mean that the rich and powerful Israeli elites will spare no expense in opposing him. That is an arena Peretz is familiar with, as he waged just those battles in his decade as head of the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union congress. He will also face great opposition from the military elites, a very serious force in Israel. Peretz, if he should become Prime Minister, would be the first Prime Minister who was never a senior officer in the Israeli military [I think Plitnick is wrong here as I recall that neither Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol nor Golda Meir served]. This could seriously undermine his credibility with the public when and if he tries to make any serious concessions on the West Bank…

Finally, a major obstacle Peretz will have to overcome will be backlash in the Labor Party. The old guard will struggle to get their position back, even if Shimon Peres, now 82, decides that this should signal his retirement. And, while Peretz’s socialistic and humanistic ideals fit with Labor’s rhetoric, the more well-off Ashkenazi Jews that still form labor’s essential core may not support implementing those ideals.

For further commentary from two prominent members of the Meretz (and former Labor Young Turks), Yossi Sarid writes hopefully and optimistically about Peretz’ ascension to leadership and Yossi Beilin writes a much more critical portrait:

“Personally, there were many years of cooperation between us. Amir Peretz is a person with a lot of positive things. But when we were together in the ‘sextet’ and the ‘octet’ [a group of ambitious, junior Labor leaders] we weren’t exposed to his tyranny. What has happened during these years in the Histadrut is unbelievable with respect to the crudeness and the personal conduct. That combination of the One Nation party and the Histadrut was a truly terrible thing. Before you represent the right positions, you have to be a human being. In the end, that’s the most important thing, and signs of dictatorialness are something that is insufferable.”

…”I think it will be very difficult for Peretz to change the Labor Party. They also pinned great hopes on Amram Mitzna. Mitzna said he wanted to leave the government and that he supported negotiations with the Palestinians on a permanent status agreement. But Mitzna remained alone. The question isn’t only Peretz, but also the party that you support. Just as anyone who votes for [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon also gets [Likud rebel MK Uzi] Landau, anyone who votes for Labor will get Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Even though there is a greater similarity now, Meretz is a much more homogenous party and clearer in its positions.”

I guess the jury is out on Peretz. But he is still the freshest breath of air to waft through Israeli politics in ages and I wish him well. To support Amir Peretz’s efforts to rejuvenate the Labor Party, you may make a donation at his website.

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  • Jonathan Edelstein November 16, 2005, 11:01 AM

    Great series of posts about Peretz. I’m a long-time admirer of his and I’m rooting heavily for him to become the next prime minister, but I recognize that these changes take time and consensus-building. At least he’s bringing some fresh ideas and momentum back to the Israeli left – I’d given up on Avoda, but now I’ll have to rethink.

  • Andrew Schamess November 16, 2005, 2:20 PM

    Thanks so much for this info, Richard. I’ve been off the scene and out of touch for a couple of weeks. It’s heartening to hear good news from Israel. Do you happen to know if there’s a campaign fund…?