Israel's Next Left
Israel's Next Left
By Carolyn O'Hara*
Posted December 2005
The founding of Ariel Sharon's new centrist party has been hailed as the dawn of a new political era in Israel. But it was actually Amir Peretz's surprising win over Shimon Peres to lead the Labor party that decisively upended the status quo in Israeli politics. Peretz's bold leadership and populist message are helping break Likud's grip on power and moving Israel to the left.
Fresh face: Israeli Labor Party leader Amir Peretz passes a portrait of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as he walks to a press conference in November.
David Silverman/Getty Images
If Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's November departure from Likud amounted to a political earthquake, then Amir Peretz's victory a week earlier over Shimon Peres for Labor Party leader was the tectonic plate that triggered it. In founding the new centrist party, Kadima, Sharon was not merely demonstrating more of the headstrong independence that earned him the nickname "Bulldozer." He was also attempting to check Peretz's growing popularity. Peretz's win convinced Sharon that he finally needed to abandon the far-right Likud elements that fought so vociferously against his Gaza withdrawal plan.
In his last government, Sharon was able to craft policies unilaterally with a complacent, Peres-led Labor in his corner, but Peretz's victory upended that advantage. Peretz, a working-class, Moroccan-born immigrant who grew up in an Israeli transit camp and now leads the trade union federation Histadrut, defied all the pundits' predictions in mid-November when he won the Labor vote and pulled his party from Sharon's government. He revitalized the moribund faction by campaigning on traditional bread-and-butter economic issues, such as a higher minimum wage and new welfare programs for the poor, who have long felt ignored by Sharon's austere budgets. According to Henry Siegman, senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Peretz offers "new blood, new, young leadership and energy, and the real possibility of new thinking and policies."
Thanks to Peretz's campaign, domestic economic issues are now at the forefront for the first time in decades. He unabashedly speaks to the class cleavages that influence Israeli politics. "Today, a person in Israel doesn't identify himself as 'left' or 'right' because of his views on subjects like taxation, for example, but because of his view regarding a Palestinian state and a peace settlement," Peretz said recently. That's allowed the parties on the right to enjoy the support of the working class and the poor, despite having done little to improve their economic welfare. Peretz hopes to rid the Labor Party of the elitist veneer it has gained in recent decades and welcome back its traditional, working-class constituents.
That kind of populist appeal could siphon away Likud's base electorate, a development Sharon can't afford to ignore. And it isn't just Peretz's rhetoric that has the prime minister worried. Peretz has the background to match his words. He is the first Sephardi Jew (a Jew of Middle Eastern or North African origin) to lead a major party. These predominantly working-class citizens abandoned Labor in droves during recent decades for the more hawkish Likud, as well-heeled, dovish elites took over Labor and ignored the needs of their traditional constituents. With Peretz at the helm of the party, many believe Peretz can woo Likud's poorer voters back to Labor now that it is headed by a man they see as one of their own.
Peretz is also granting renewed legitimacy to the idea of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, in contrast to Sharon's unilateralist tendencies. He supports the establishment of a Palestinian state and has proposed plans for dismantling West Bank settlements and finalizing the border. His call for an "ethical roadmap" that "will bring an end to the occupation that erodes the moral fiber of the Israeli society" is based on his desire to see more resources devoted to addressing economic disparities within Israel, an appeal that resonates in a country where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Peretz has struck a chord with many voters who want more resources spent on domestic programs, and who no longer believe the economic health of Israel needs to be sacrificed by the security agenda. In a recent poll, Israelis voted poverty the most pressing problem in the country, ranking security a surprising fourth, behind government corruption and education.
Peretz's combination of new ideas and working-class cred, coupled with his relative youth and long flirtation with the peace movement, makes him a breath of fresh air for a conflict-weary mainstream. In a country where just 1 in 5 Jews is Israeli-born, Peretz's Moroccan heritage has boosted his profile. He's reaching out to other immigrant groups in other ways, such as learning Russian to court influential former Soviets. He's brushing up his English to burnish his foreign-policy profile. Even his military experience sets him apart from the old warhorses, like Sharon and Peres. At 54, Peretz has never been in the top ranks of the military; he decided to leave after being severely wounded as an ordnance officer in the 1970s. If he wins in March, he'll be the first Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir never to have served in the military's upper echelons.
Peretz's focus on shekels and jobs is risky because security has always dominated Israeli campaigns. "No general election has ever been decided on the basis of the economy," according to Caroline Glick, columnist for the Jerusalem Post. But the security situation has indeed improved, owing to the relative success of the controversial security barrier and the Gaza withdrawal. That leaves more room for the left's economic message, and the other candidates are absorbing, not ignoring, Peretz's policies. Sharon himself has taken up the cause of poverty, announcing that his new party will "act decisively on the issue of poor people." One Likud minister vying for his party's top post recently tried to garner support by telling a rally that he was the only one in the party who recognized the needs of the poor. "The speed with which all the other candidates have jumped to address poverty is a recognition on their part that this is Peretz's strongest suit," says the CFR's Seigman.
Since Sharon's departure from Likud, party members have descended into sharp discord, attacking one another in a bid for the leadership and leaving the party a shadow of its former self. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish former prime minister and Sharon's finance minister in the last government, was elected the party's new leader, but he has drawn assaults from his party members for being, of all things, too right-wing. He has vowed to clean the party's ranks of dissent from his agenda, a move that many consider misguided. With Sharon and Peretz recruiting high-profile political stars to their respective camps, Likud will need all the support it can muster.
Recent polls show Kadima enjoying a strong lead ahead of the March elections, but Peretz's Labor is a growing force. A poll released on December 15 in Jerusalem's Ha'aretz projected 24 seats in the Knesset for Labor, with Kadima leading at 35. Likud garnered just 12 seats in the poll, down from 38 in the last election. The margin between Kadima and Labor is expected to narrow as the novelty of the new center party wears off in the coming months, and many wonder whether Kadima could survive if Sharon's health forces him to bow out early. He recently suffered a minor stroke, and though polls conducted after his release from the hospital still gave Kadima the advantage, one poll pitting Kadima under a different leader against Peretz's Labor gives Labor the lead.
Ultimately, Peretz is the candidate to watch. He has succeeded in making Labor's traditional economic message relevant again. Israelis may not yet be ready to vote with their pocketbooks, so Sharon may still triumph in March. But if Sharon can achieve peace with the Palestinians, an electorate that has always voted based on security issues may be ready to vote economics. Peretz would be the political beneficiary. Already he has shifted the political spectrum decisively to the center-left. His opponents are adjusting their platforms to match his job-friendly policies. With Sharon's eye firmly on his political legacy, the stage is being set for Peretz and a new generation of Labor.
*Carolyn O'Hara is editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.
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