Politics: Peretz’s prescription

Amir Peretz hopes to distance himself from the pack in the Labor race by wooing Likudniks.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
May 20, 2011 16:21
Irone Dome missile defense system near Beersheba

Iron Dome outside Beersheba 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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It is nothing special when Labor Party leadership candidates focus their attention on the Likud rather than attack each other.

All six candidates in the September 12 primary are doing that at this early stage of the race, devoting most of their speeches at nightly parlor meetings across the country to attacks on the policies of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

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However, only MK Amir Peretz is targeting the Likud for votes.

Not just in the primary itself, where he is repeating the strategy that helped him defeat Shimon Peres in 2005 – signing up thousands of traditional Likud voters in development towns and poor neighborhoods – but also for the next general election.

Peretz is looking ahead to after the primary and telling Labor members that only he can persuade Likudniks to vote for Labor against Netanyahu. He says this is especially important at a time when what really determines who forms the next government is not which party gets the most votes, but whether the Right or Left bloc is bigger.

“The next election will be decided by how we change the size of the bloc,” Peretz says in an interview at his small office in the Knesset. “Other candidates are fighting Kadima, but I don’t intend to declare war on them. I see them as a partner in replacing the Netanyahu-Barak government. Taking votes away from them won’t change the political map. The only way to do that is for me to take votes away from the Right and give them to the Left.”

The Likud’s strategists say they are not overly concerned about Peretz and that they do not believe he can make a significant impact on the blocs, the way they are concerned that a party led by former Shas leader Aryeh Deri could or MK Shaul Mofaz might be able to if he unseats Tzipi Livni at the helm of Kadima.

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To this, Peretz responds by stating categorically that he stole no fewer than eight seats from the Likud in the 2006 election, winning in places like Kiryat Shmona, where Labor had never won before. And to make his point even clearer, he takes out his cellphone and calls Meir Segal of Yokneam, who runs a branch of Aroma near Hadera.

Segal is a Likud central committee member who was close to party MK Dan Meridor and to former Kadima prime minister Ehud Olmert when he was in the Likud. He met Peretz on Tuesday at a parlor meeting near Haifa and decided to leave Likud and join Labor in order to vote for him.

“Netanyahu only cares about the rich, but Amir really cares about everyone,” Segal says. “He is pure, like the politicians used to be during the days of Menachem Begin. People are thirsty for change. I’m going to go from house to house and move people over from Likud to Labor.”

Asked whether he was concerned about the dovish views of Peretz, who already endorsed a Palestinian state in 1984 and is a proud advocate for J Street, Segal says he no longer sees a major difference between the Right and Left and that since he announced his decision on his Facebook page, a lot of people have been telling him the same.

Many Likudniks Peretz has met are not as bold as Segal. One head of a northern Likud branch promised Peretz that he would leave Likud for Labor if Peretz won the race. When Peretz responded that he couldn’t win unless people like him joined before the primary, he responded that he wasn’t willing to take the risk that one of the other candidates would win.

“It’s like drilling for oil,” Peretz says. “I can bring young Likud people who are sick of Netanyahu and his scare tactics. These people can change the face of Labor.”

Peretz says his own outlook has never changed, from his emphasis on socioeconomic issues like helping workers and seniors to his views about the peace process. He is proud that he appointed the country’s first Arab minister, Ghaleb Majadle, and he is angry at Netanyahu for insisting on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state when no such demand was made by Begin in making peace with Egypt.

After listening to Netanyahu’s speech at the Knesset on Wednesday, Peretz says he believes the prime minister is doing everything possible to avoid advancing the peace process. That’s why he calls him “not a peace refusenik, but an anti-peace schemer.”

“Why do we need Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] to tell us who we are?” Peretz asks. “Netanyahu is doing this to add another obstacle to the peace process.

He wants to make it look like he is pursuing peace, when he is really running away from it.”

Yet Peretz reserves his fiercest criticism for Ehud Barak, his former nemesis in Labor, who unseated him in the 2007 Labor primary and then unceremoniously fired him from the Defense Ministry by fax.

“Barak inflicts more damage to the peace process than anyone else,” Peretz says. “Without Barak, Bibi would be able to tell the right-wing parties in his coalition to leave him space to prevent him from falling, but he hasn’t had to do anything because he has had Barak as a left-wing fig leaf. History proves that Begin and Netanyahu made peace deals with right-wing governments while the Left was putting on pressure from the opposition.”

While Peretz bashes the Israeli Barak, he has nothing but kind words for the Barack of the United States, who he believes is a treasure for Israel. He praises the US president for opposing the Goldstone Report, vetoing the UN resolution on settlements, and pursuing a settlement freeze.

“The demand not to build during talks is legitimate, because the whole goal is to get to a deal done on borders and then both sides will know where they can and can’t build and can continue talking about the other issues,” he says. “Everyone believes the borders will be drawn based on where they were before 1967 except Bibi and Lieberman. I’d bet if Bibi had known that without his [initial] objection to extending the settlement freeze for three months, there wouldn’t be a Hamas-Fatah deal and the Palestinians wouldn’t be able to run to the UN, he wouldn’t have objected.”

Peretz actually may have inadvertently played a part in bringing Hamas and Fatah together. Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon was quoted as saying that the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system that Peretz initiated as defense minister had persuaded Hamas to seek another strategy instead of rocket attacks. This makes Peretz – a resident of Sderot – very proud.

“I said Iron Dome would have an impact on the peace process,” he says.

“Hezbollah should also wake up and decide to go in a different direction because of Iron Dome. Until a year ago, Barak still opposed expanding Iron Dome, and now he allocated funding to expand it to the entire country within four years.”

Thanks to Iron Dome and to the passage of time, Peretz hears fewer complaints these days about the mistake he readily admits making in accepting the Defense portfolio in Olmert’s government in 2006, and his role in the subsequent Second Lebanon War, which the Winograd Commission dubbed a failure.

If elected, Peretz would insist on taking the Welfare and Social Services portfolio. His plan on welfare issues is called “the Socioeconomic Iron Dome.”

WHEN IT comes to politics, Peretz doesn’t need a missile shield to protect himself. He was the only one of the major candidates in the Labor race to announce his candidacy with a press conference. He called the decisions by MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog and former Labor chairman Amram Mitzna to skip the traditional opening campaign press conference “shameful,” and accused them of being afraid of facing tough questions.

Peretz also criticizes his former supporter Yacimovich of lacking loyalty and integrity and taking credit for bills he initiated. He accuses Herzog of missing opportunities to prove his leadership when he was reluctant to take the Welfare and Social Services portfolio and when he opposed a hike in the minimum wage due to coalition discipline.

“I told him that if he got fired, he should send Bibi flowers, because he would make him the next Labor leader,” Peretz says.

Peretz forgave Herzog for comments attributed to him in Haaretz, in which he allegedly called Peretz “too Moroccan” to be elected in 2006. The two had a meeting in which Herzog denied making the comment and apologized.

“I could have not accepted the apology as some of my advisers were telling me,” he says. “But I accepted it for the good of the public rather than letting a wound fester. His explanation satisfied me, but I don’t have an X-ray to examine his mind.”

For Mitzna, Peretz has praise. He likes his modesty and that his tour of duty in Yeroham made development towns attractive in the eyes of the public.

The polls show Mitzna winning twice as many seats as Peretz, but Peretz has burned pollsters before.

To succeed, he must persuade Labor members that what really matters is not how many seats Labor would get, but the mandates the Left would win in a general election.

“Mitzna can take seats away from Kadima, but only I can help the Left come back to power,” he asserts

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