Is There A New Labor Party In Israel?

 Amir Peretz’s stunning victory last week has been hailed by some as the dawning of a new day of hope in Israeli politics. Peretz is certainly a very new and different sort of leader for a major Israeli political party. It is important to understand Peretz, what he represents and what hope he brings, as well as keeping perspective on the limits of what his victory means.

Peretz was seen as something of an upstart in his bid to become the leader of Labor. But his timing couldn’t have been better. The rank and file of Labor had long since lost enthusiasm for the political shenanigans of Shimon Peres. Peres has never been a very inspiring leader, nor has he ever been a powerful proponent of a specific political agenda. Peres is an opportunist, and being in a top position in any Israeli government has always been his primary focus. When Amram Mitzna won the Labor leadership in 2002, despite being something of a political novice, it exposed the entrenched Labor leadership of Peres, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Ophir Pines-Paz and Ephraim Sneh as having lost significant support. Peretz has now capitalized on that.

Prospects for the near future

It would be foolish to see Peretz’s victory as anything other than a very positive development, not only for Israeli politics, but also for hopes for an end to the occupation and a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it would be equally foolish to believe that it is going to dramatically alter the course of events in the near term.

If Peretz, as seems very likely, makes good on his promise to pull Labor out of the government, elections in March, 2006 are equally likely. With Ariel Sharon’s position as head of Likud still somewhat tenuous, the possibility exists that Sharon will form a third party, possibly with disaffected members of Labor. Peretz’s potential to pull voters from Likud to Labor could combine with Sharon’s departure and cripple Likud. But this in no way ensures a Labor victory in March.

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 prove a quick fix to the vexing Israel-Palestine conflict.

But a Peretz victory in March could have better effect down the road. Given time, he may be able to sway sentiment in Israel about Jerusalem. More directly, 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. Armed with the report from March, 2005 by Talia Sasson about the illegal methods used to fund both so-called settlement “outposts” and larger, established settlements, Peretz may be able to weaken the settler movement significantly.

In the wake of his victory in Labor, Peretz presented a bill to the Knesset offering compensation to any settlers who wished to leave the West Bank. It’s a small step, but a beginning.

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 (for an excellent exposition of the struggle within Labor and in Israel generally between socialism and nationalism, see Ze’ev Sternhell’s book “The Founding Myths of Israel”.) 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.

Peretz as peacemaker?

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, and his wife works diligently at promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. 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.”

Unlike Amram Mitzna in 2002, Peretz did not gradually lower the volume on his peace rhetoric as his campaign went on. However, that is in part due to the fact that the peace agenda lags well behind internal socio-economic reforms for Peretz. Also, Peretz has nearly zero experience in international affairs, and even his experience as a peace activist has been largely outside the realm of high-level politics. Still, it should be noted that even his domestic agenda can have notable impact on the occupation. As the Israeli economy has worsened for most of its citizens, support for harsher and more stubborn measures in dealing with the Palestinians has grown. An economically insecure society tends to become more nationalistic. A more equitable Israeli economy would be a much more fertile ground for real change and real compromise with the Palestinians.

But it is unwise at this point to raise hopes too high. Even if Peretz were to become Prime Minister (not a very likely outcome of early elections, though far from impossible), his domestic agenda would be his top priority. He would also face difficult obstacles, particularly in his lack of experience and contact with foreign officials and what would likely be an American government that would not see eye-to-eye with him, at least until 2008.

Undermining Likud’s Mizrahi voter base

In the early years of the Israeli state, with Labor in firm control of the government, Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries faced intense discrimination, which continues to be felt today. Mizrahi Jews (Mizrahi means “Eastern” and describes Jews from most of Asia and North Africa) have been alienated from Labor because of that legacy. Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European, Caucasian descent) constitute a disproportionate majority of the elites in Israel, while the Mizrahim, who are the majority of Israeli Jews, have a generally lower level of income and are more commonly among the working class. So it is that Labor, ostensibly a more socialist, peace-minded party, has been the party of the elites of Israel, and Mizrahi voters have gravitated to right-wing religious parties such as Shas, or to the Likud.

Amir Peretz, a Moroccan, and thus Mizrahi Jew, has always been outspoken about the position of Mizrahim in Israel. Far from being a tokenistic leader, Peretz has kept his identity proudly about him, but has always maintained his aura as a leader of all. He may well be just the person to bring a good deal of Mizrahi support to Labor, something it has never had in the past. This could allow him to make some very bold changes, both domestically and in the Occupied Territories.

Peretz has also been a defender of Israel’s Arab minority. In recent years, Arab citizens of Israel have faced the worst discrimination since their isolation as a feared “fifth column” in the 1950s. Peretz would certainly act to stem that tide, and would likely garner some Arab support for doing so. How much remains to be seen, as the events of recent years have severely harmed Israel’s relationship with its own Arab citizens.

Obstacles for Peretz

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. This could seriously undermine his credibility with the public when and if he tries to make any serious concessions on the West Bank.

Perhaps the most interesting battle for Peretz will be his battle with anti-Mizrahi discrimination. As a Moroccan Jew, his Mizrahi identity will be in the forefront. How much this affects his position will say a lot about the way Ashkenazi Jews regard Mizrahim today.

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.

What should Americans look to do now?

One of Peretz’s talking points has been his desire for direct, bilateral negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. It is clear that he is not seeking American involvement in those talks. How the US would respond to being excluded remains to be seen, but given the centrality of Israel for so many major foreign policy planners in America, it is unlikely they will take to it well. At the same time, the prospects for Peretz being able to offer the Palestinians even the barest minimum of what they would need, even if he sincerely wishes to do so, seems exceedingly remote in the near term.

This leaves foreign peace activists in essentially the same position we have been in. We must continue to advocate for the removal of the illegal wall in the West Bank; for a full withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank; for a Jerusalem that, shared or divided, can serve as a capital for both Palestinians and Israelis; and for a just and reasonable resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue. Whatever the eventual outcome of the conflict, we know already that these things are the bare minimum to which Israel must agree. It is possible that Peretz’s victory can be a first step toward these things, but there is a very long way to go and the greatest obstacles remain.

We must increase pressure on our own government to withhold aid to Israel that strengthens the occupation, and we must continue to pressure our government into adopting a stance that is fair for both sides. And, even from the United States or from Europe, Canada, South America or anywhere else in the world, we can echo Peretz’s words that the “occupation is immoral.” It is not for us to support or oppose an Israeli leader, but we can support or oppose his actions. Ariel Sharon only gives us actions to oppose. We can hope Peretz does better, even expect him to, but our program remains the same.

Other articles on Peretz

Uri Avnery on Peretz’s victory

Yediot Akhronot on Peretz

Gideon Levy on Peretz

Akiva Eldar on Peretz

Ariga on Peretz

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