Behind the Lines: Peretz and the press

After the elections, when the political division of spoils landed the Defense Ministry in Peretz's lap, what chance did he have of succeeding in the job?

Amir Peretz 298.88 (photo credit: Ori Porat)
Amir Peretz 298.88
(photo credit: Ori Porat)
Saying something favorable about Amir Peretz is probably the most unfashionable thing you can do right now. But, reflecting on his improbable rise and rapid fall, I can't help feeling that the Labor chairman (for a mere 10 more days) has received a raw deal - almost from Day One. To be more precise, Peretz enjoyed a brief weekend of grace after his surprise election in November 2005, during which the Friday papers had just enough time to put together special packages detailing the rise of the firebrand from Sderot, praising his bravery and authenticity and heralding the new social agenda he was bringing, not only to Labor but to Israeli politics in general. Here was the leader who could challenge the all-mighty Ariel Sharon, then still at the helm of Likud. But on Sunday morning disaster struck, when Peretz addressed the donors of the Rabin Center, and gave a hastily prepared speech in English, proving him incapable of pronouncing words with more than two syllables. At one stage he was so tongue-tied that he just jumped over entire sentences in the text. The speech became an immediate hit on the Internet, and the media began asking whether anyone could really take the possibility of a Peretz premiership seriously. It's hard to exaggerate the degree of damage those embarrassing minutes caused Peretz's image. His legitimacy as a candidate for the highest office was suddenly cast in doubt. The ability of the man - who, only days earlier, had single-handedly beaten the entire Labor establishment - even to run a credible campaign seemed questionable. Political reporters competed with each other to collect stories on Peretz's inability to work with his campaign managers, and how suspicion and petty issues of seniority on his part were outweighing rational political considerations. Two weeks later, Kadima was founded. Shimon Peres left Labor to join the new party, and all the middle-class Ashkenazi voters who were embarrassed to be affiliated with a party led by this "illiterate Moroccan upstart" had a new alternative. It was estimated that close to half of those who voted Labor in the 2003 elections had switched their allegiances to new ones from "the periphery." Peretz took control of the party, forcing its ministers to resign from the Sharon government and precipitating the elections. He ran a bravely iconoclastic campaign, putting issues such as the minimum wage, benefits for working mothers and investment in education at the forefront. But he had become a marginalized candidate. Peretz's speeches and appearances, even those he gave to present major policies, were reported cursorily on inside pages - with only his embarrassing errors warranting headlines. Kadima was the only game in town, and the press accepted its members as the ultimate and rightly victors months before the elections. Senior Laborites were constantly quoted anonymously on how impossible it was to work with Peretz and on how he was leading the party to electoral disaster. Peretz himself, of course, bears a major part of the blame. His strategy was haphazard; he appointed and replaced advisers and publicists on a weekly basis; he seemed incapable of taking professional advice, falling back instead on a tightly knit group of loyalists who could be trusted to tell him what he wanted to hear. And he walked into a serious trap when he authorized a media spot comparing him to another ex-Histadrut secretary-general who had lived in a small community in the South - one who, too, had been derided as a wild visionary - because the the comparison to the mythological first prime minister only served to remind Israelis that he was no David Ben-Gurion. Professor Avishay Braverman, a newcomer to the party, was enlisted to reassure the upper classes that Peretz wasn't a rabid Marxist about to take away all their privileges. Instead of putting their minds at rest, however, Braverman's appearances only served to stress the contrast between the suave, cosmopolitan university president and the strident, plain-talking unionist. AFTER THE elections, when the political division of spoils landed the Defense Ministry in Peretz's lap, what chance did he have of succeeding in the job? His ability to hold such a serious post had already been totally delegitimized. And the attitude toward him was: social affairs minister, maybe, but defense? Should Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have appointed Peretz? Should Peretz have accepted the job? Ultimately we have to accept the fact that in a democracy, civilian politicians are sometimes elected to give orders to the military, and that ex-generals who served as defense ministers have presided over greater disasters than the Second Lebanon War. Peretz's shortcomings during the war are clear. The Winograd Committee's preliminary report spelled out that his inexperience weakened the country. The report also noted, however, that at times, Peretz was the only minister asking pertinent questions when the IDF presented its plans as a fait accompli. But no one listened to him. This, I believe, was partly because Peretz was already then widely seen as an illegitimate defense minister. THIS WEEK, Peretz was ousted from the Labor chairmanship because of his own multiple failings as party leader and minister. This doesn't mean, however, that the Israeli media gave him a fair run at proving himself capable of filling either post. Journalists in this country are routinely accused of pursuing a relentless left-wing agenda, but here for the first time, they were presented with a Labor leader unlike his predecessors - with bona fide leftist credentials and positions both on security and fiscal matters, not a wishy-washy compromise stance that has always been Labor policy. And he was rejected. There is a degree of prejudice here against Sephardi politicians, who are good enough to run "lowly" social affairs (for years, Labor's token Mizrahi minister was in charge of the police), but can't really be trusted with major matters of state. When David Levy became foreign minister, he was greeted with ridicule. So what if he was the most experienced Likud minister who had succeeded in the Housing Ministry? The idea that a Moroccan politician from Beit She'an - who only spoke Hebrew, Arabic and French - could represent Israel was anathema. His rival, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had no trouble squeezing him out of the Madrid negotiations; no one took him seriously anyway. Exceptions to the rule were Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Yitzhak Mordechai, who had proved themselves as generals before entering politics. But woe betide any Sephardi civilian who thinks that a successful career in local government and on the backbenches of the Knesset prepares him for the great offices of state. Ehud Barak might have been a spectacular failure as prime minister (serving at the same time as defense minister), and Ami Ayalon is political neophyte, but they are both regarded now as natural candidates to lead Labor and the nation, while Peretz is little more than a sorry joke. The picture of Defense Minister Peretz gazing at a military exercise through binoculars with their lens covers still on is one that will remain in the collective memory, thanks to its being shown and broadcast numerous times in the media. Who remembers that Ariel Sharon was caught in exactly the same pose a couple of years ago?