amir peretz 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
New Labor chairman Amir Peretz declared the day before Thursday's Labor leadership upheaval that his victory would be "the biggest surprise in Israeli political history" and that incumbent Shimon Peres would win in the polls, while he would emerge victorious in the ballot boxes.
It should have been no surprise that Peres could lose an election that everyone thought he would win. He had already lost five elections for prime minister and been beaten for the presidency by Moshe Katsav, who, like Peretz, was a Sephardi MK from a development town and who no one thought had a chance to win.
The easiest way to explain Peretz's victory is to blame it on Peres. Once again, Peres took an election victory for granted. He was the only candidate who didn't register anyone during Labor's infamous membership drive. And he spent months traveling the world and concentrating on his ministry's efforts to make the Negev bloom, while his opponents were spending all their time in Labor branches.
"The polls I have don't justify a special campaign because I have natural support," Peres bragged in an interview with The Jerusalem Post just six weeks before the original date of the primary.
But after the election was delayed, Peres did make a serious effort to win. He assembled a campaign staff, stumped for votes across the country, and convinced challenger Matan Vilna'i to quit the race. Even Peres's son, hi-tech executive Chemi Peres, joined his father's campaign for the first time.
Peretz's nemesis, former prime minister Ehud Barak, blamed Peretz's victory on the membership drive. But the 30,000 people Peretz brought to the party were fewer than those third-place finisher Binyamin Ben-Eliezer garnered.
Another reason given by Peretz's critics was that he had at his disposal the well-oiled machine of the Histadrut. But every candidate had enough time to assemble a team of volunteers, and Peretz was the only one of the five original candidates who did not come to the race with the taxpayer-funded perks of a minister or former prime minister.
THE ONE reason that hasn't been considered by the political pundits was that Peretz ran a great campaign, used smart political strategies and had a message that he sold successfully to a majority of Labor members.
Anyone surprised by Peretz's victory should have seen Labor's headquarters in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on May 18. Peretz turned the courtyard of the normally dormant building into a massive pep rally.
More than 1,000 supporters packed the party grounds, sending a message that Peretz could revitalize Labor. Newcomers to Labor from development towns and poor neighborhoods came out in droves to cheer for one of their own. Peretz brought a carnival-like atmosphere to the event, demonstrating how Labor could change under him.
"As a child of a development town who has lived there his entire life, I call upon you my brothers, residents of development towns," Peretz said. "The peace camp needs us to get new life and we need the peace camp to build our future and the future of our children."
Speakers at the event included legendary Laborites like Lova Eliav to connect him to Labor's past, industrialist Benny Gaon to show that he can appeal to businessmen, and Australian-born Labor activist Guy Spiegelman to emphasize that he could attract young people and immigrants.
Peretz was the only candidate with a message explaining how Labor could win a general election against the Likud. This attracted many Labor members who were not looking forward to another four years under Peres playing second fiddle to the Likud in a national-unity government.
"The Likud that used to represent the downtrodden now represents the millionaires," Peretz said when he announced his candidacy on May 3. "Just like the people rebelled against Mapai in 1977 and brought the Likud to power, now the people will rebel against Bibi. The public feels the Likud betrayed and humiliated them and they will make their voice heard in the ballot box."
Peretz's campaign adviser, Moti Morell, presented the results of a poll that revealed that twice as many people believe the next general election will be fought over economic issues as those who think it will rest on security matters. The poll found that 89 percent of the public thinks the government is primarily helping the rich and 86% are angry with the Likud's economic policies.
"The next election will be in May 2006 after the government falls over the budget," Peretz predicted at the time. "The national trauma from disengagement will create a public outcry to focus on internal, socioeconomic issues."
Following Peretz's victory, it looks like the election will in fact be no later than May and that the government will indeed fall because of disagreements over the budget.
It remains to be seen whether he will succeed in putting social issues at the top of the national agenda of a general election. Unlike elections in America, where a popular slogan is "It's the economy, stupid," in security-obsessed Israel, it is considered stupid for politicians to focus on the economy.
But it worked in the Labor race, and there may be just as much anger at the government in the street for straying from the Likud's traditional socioeconomic policies as there is for straying from the Likud's diplomatic-security policies with disengagement.
It is still unclear how Peretz's victory will impact chances for a split in the Likud. But if former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu ends up being the Likud leader, the economy will definitely be a major focus of the race.
Peretz has now succeeded in defeating former generals Ben-Eliezer, Vilna'i and Barak and a former prime minister - Peres. This should be enough to convince Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he cannot afford to repeat Peres's mistakes and be complacent.
The polls across the Hebrew press on Friday will undoubtedly show that Peretz has no chance of beating Sharon. But Peretz has proven that he can overcome polls. And if he succeeds against all odds in becoming prime minister, it will indeed be "the biggest surprise in Israeli political history."