In a stunning rejection of the status quo, nearly 2/3 of the eligible members in Israel?s Labor Party chose a new leader. By a slim margin of 2.5%, the venerable Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister in the present coalition government, was defeated by MK Amir Peretz in the November 9 primary. The campaign for the Israel Labor Party leadership, originally due to be held on June 28th, was an occasion to decide who will lead Labor into Israel?s next national elections, scheduled for November ?06 (with conventional wisdom suggesting early national elections, probably in the Spring).
The primaries had been postponed at the last minute following objections to the new membership lists that resulted from the registration drive of the preceding months. There was an attempt to avoid holding the primaries altogether ? largely out of concern by some at the consistently strong showing and momentum behind Peretz, who is also head of the Histadrut, Israel?s labor federation. With his successful bid to wrest the Labor Party?s top position, Peretz is expected to resign his Histadrut position.
While labor unions in Europe are a source of support for social-democratic parties, in Israel the Labor Party has become identified more and more with Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. Amir Peretz’s candidacy was designed to open the party to a new following, with a social and peace alternative for national leadership.
In 1999 Peretz founded the workers? party ?Am Ehad? which, by January 2003, had grown strong enough to win three seats in the 16th Knesset. Following negotiations with the Labor Party in mid-2004, the two parties merged.
The decision of the Labor Party Central Committee to go ahead with the primaries represented an important achievement for the Peretz campaign. He had become the main challenger to Shimon Peres? continued leadership, and the symbol around which hope for change coalesced. Although Shimon Peres is an intellectual and historic figure, he is perceived by many as remote from the average citizen. Peretz is the first grassroots social leader to surface in the struggle for the Labor Party?s future, and may be the most refreshing development that has happened in the party for years.
Peretz has been described as ?an authentic blue from a deep red state,? an Israeli from the periphery with humble beginnings, who is a committed advocate of the Labor cause. The connection between Israel?s socio?economic and peace agendas never seem more convincing than when Peretz advocates them.
Born in Morocco, he came to Israel with his family when he was four years old and settled in Sderot, a Negev development town. He was badly wounded in the Israeli army and returned to his home town, where he was elected Mayor at the age of 30. He ran ?and won ? in Labor?s primaries in 1988, entering the Knesset for the first time.
Peretz was an early supporter of Peace Now, and one of the few political leaders from the Moroccan Jewish community to do so. But his political vision remains more populist than other dovish leaders.
As head of the Histadrut, Peretz brings a special perspective on both the peace process and social issues. For years, he has stressed more than the other candidates the link between investing in the settlements and the distress of the weaker elements in society.
In a 2003 interview, he said: ?I am a peace person, and I fully support the establishment of a Palestinian state, but 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.?
While head of the local Sderot Council Peretz supported the establishment of a Palestinian state and promoted cooperation between the two peoples. He initiated unusual activities which were contrary to the atmosphere in Israel at that time. For example, in the mid-eighties, he organized a huge rally in the Negev where he called for the immediate withdrawal from Gaza. As a resident of Sderot he established a joint organization with Palestinian leaders from Gaza, such as Hayder Abdel Shafi, which was called ?Sun-Neighbors Speak Peace.?
Peretz is committed to the pursuit of a just and lasting peace with Israel?s Palestinian neighbors. He has stated that such a peace agreement would end the occupation that erodes the moral fiber of Israeli society and ?undermines its ability to preserve its Jewish and democratic nature?? Furthermore, he supported the pullout from Gaza not for economic reasons, but rather for the moral price paid by Israel?s presence in Palestinian areas. ?The State of Israel has lost its morals,? he said. ?Violence in society stems from our presence in the territories.?
According to Peretz, peace ?with our Palestinian neighbors? would also free Israel to channel its resources ?into caring for our own citizens?closing the widening social gaps, and enhancing social justice? while better guaranteeing security with defensible, recognized borders.
Over the years, the activist labor union leader has cooperated with Palestinian organizations within the framework of the Histadrut. For example, he signed agreements with the PGFTU (Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions) in 1995 and 1997, believing that the Histadrut should assist in protecting the rights of the Palestinian workers. These agreements determine that the Histadrut provides legal consultants to the Palestinian workers who work in Israel in order to protect their rights. In addition, the Histadrut will remit to the PGFTU half of the affiliation fees, which are collected from the latter. This is a unique precedent, which does not exist in any trade union throughout the world.
While Peretz supports a free market, in his view it should be one that respects labor laws and ensures the ?rights of all workers.? ?A healthy and prosperous economy is grounded in the following principles: reducing unemployment, promoting fair and equal working conditions and increasing the minimum wage, while ensuring competition.? To accomplish these objectives the feisty Knesset member has issued ?An Ethical Roadmap for Israel? that promotes social inclusion and a sense of belonging, with a commitment to building a society that respects the basic needs and rights of all individuals ? regardless of race, religion, gender or age, characterized by inclusion, equality and diversity.
Some analysts suggest that Peretz?s campaign was quixotic, given Shimon Peres? stature and his standing in the polls. This was enhanced by the desire of those Labor Party stalwarts who wish to remain in the coalition government and to retain even a modicum of power by cohabiting with Likud.
The victory by Peretz has already demonstrated that many party members are seeking a new way and are frustrated with the leadership?s reluctance to demand significant changes in existing social and economic programs by the government. They also may sense the need to promulgate a program that distinguishes the Labor Party from Likud, or slide into irrelevancy. Peretz? successful campaign sparked an internal upheaval within the Labor Party, one that is long overdue.
Prepared by Jerry Goodman
Executive Director, National Committee for Labor Israel
(with appreciation to Jo-Ann Mort for some of her observations)