Amir Peretz: The man behind the mustache

The following is an interview with Amir Peretz published in May, 2005. Since MK Amir Peretz returned to the Labor Party, he has been accused of forgeries, the merger of his Am Ehad faction with Labor has been stalled, and now his run for the Labor leadership may be blocked. It's not the kind of welcome that Amir Peretz was expecting when he returned to Labor after a decade of leading the workers of the country through strikes and sanctions as head of the Histadrut Labor Federation. Peretz has been through countless labor disputes with a lower-case L and now he is experiencing his share of Labor disputes with a capital L. In the last week alone, he has been part of high-profile shouting matches with Labor MK Danny Yatom and Labor legal adviser Eldad Yaniv in which enough epithets were used to fill a dictionary of insults. Peretz was called a zero, an inflated balloon of arrogance, and a vile dictator. He dished out words like liar, filth, and the lowest of all creatures. After a career of fighting, Peretz is in the battle of his life to claim the Labor Party leadership in the June 28 primary. He sees his quest as not just a personal campaign but as a struggle for the soul of a Labor Party that has been too busy seeking peace to fulfill its fundamental goal of helping workers and poor people. If Peretz is successful, he will remake Labor in his image, as a social-democratic party that presents itself as an alternative to the Likud on socio-economic matters at a time when it is difficult to differentiate Likud and Labor on diplomatic issues. Much of Peretz's campaign has been focused on targeting the two men that Peretz believes have done the greatest damage to Israeli society: Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Peretz believes that the two men are twins on economic issues, and if he can stop the latter in the Labor leadership race, he will be able to stop the former, who he believes will be the Likud's candidate in the next general election. Because Peretz's views on economic issues are so well-known, his aides forbid him to discuss the economy in this interview. Instead, besides politics, he unveiled his diplomatic platform, and his opinions on the separation of religion and state, Diaspora Jewry and how he as prime minister would handle settlers or workers blocking the roads. You didn't expect a red carpet when you arrived in Labor but why do you think you have been given such a rude welcome? I think everyone understands that if someone who hasn't made the ideological impact on the country that I have arrived in the party, he would have been received without a problem. I think the party should be happy to get a man like me who has significant support, who returns the color to its cheeks, and who gives it a social agenda at a time when Labor can't present an alternative to the Likud on diplomatic issues. Why do you think people are trying to stop you from running? There are many voices trying to stop me but the arms are all arms of Ehud Barak, who is using schemes and maneuvers and various representatives, because he is afraid to come out himself. The fact that people are working so hard to stop me apparently means that I have a chance to win. Barak's people have tried to provoke me, but I haven't fallen to their level. It's amazing that they are using the techniques dark regimes to stop a candidate. This just shows Barak's cowardice. He should show up at the polls like a man. But Barak has a good reason to try to stop me, because I'm the only one who presents an ethical alternative to him and I know that his economic policies and Bibi's are the same. How is it that five weeks before the election, you still don't know whether you will be permitted to run? I don't need permission to run. I am a member of the party. The merger between Labor and Am Ehad happened de facto. Our people have already been elected heads of Labor branches and youth leaders. We are functioning as part of the party. The merger agreement says that Am Ehad members automatically joined Labor from the day they joined Am Ehad. Our membership is guaranteed and has been endorsed both by internal and external courts. How will the 28,000 members you brought into the party impact the race? Am Ehad originally had 22,000 members, 18,000 remained and then we added 10,000 more. These are the numbers and I tell the truth, not more or less. We put Labor on the map across the country, and the new members will bring more voters from their towns. I know people are saying I only had three mandates before but I reject comparing this election to the mandates of the last Knesset, because we have to look to the future. Registering for a party is a psychological act of intent. Labor should see the fact that so many people from development towns and poor neighborhoods were willing to do that act as giving the party new legitimacy as a social-democratic party. How can you be so convinced that people will vote on socio-economic issues and not diplomatic matters in the next election? Before 1977, no one talked about socio-economic issues and no one expected the revolution. Bibi has shown the capitalist extreme and he gave us the tools to present the antithesis and get the Likud's voters. The wealthy people will see why they should vote on socio-economic lines too because they understand the dangers of the gaps in society. Let's turn to diplomatic issues. Where would you draw Israel's border on the West Bank? Deciding the borders now would be a horrible mistake. The border matters less than the ethical problem of occupation. It's an Israeli interest, not just a Palestinian one to leave the territories and I think I am capable of leading Israel out of the territories. Being there has harmed us morally and contributed to violence in society. Waiting only makes our partners more extreme. After disengagement, we should continue with the road map. I don't think we can keep the settlement blocs without giving the Palestinians something in return, either diplomatically or territorially. What do you mean by giving something diplomatically? For instance, we can rent land for 100 years like what happened in Hong Kong. Diplomatic tactics can be found to solve difficult situations. We are not going to be hugging the Palestinians. We will make deals with people who are difficult people, who have very different interests. What happens if after disengagement, Palestinian violence intensifies? As a Sderot resident, I have seen my share of Kassam rockets and my family throughout the city has experienced them. Yet I support disengagement. I don't have an illusion that there won't be Kassams after disengagement. But leaving settlements gives us the legitimacy to use all force necessary to act militarily after disengagement. Now if we used force in the Gaza Strip, we would look like we were taking advantage of the occupation. But after the pullout, any act will be in self defense and will be supported by the world. If the Palestinian leadership doesn't help us by stopping violence, they will give ammunition to the Right that wants to stop further withdrawals. The settlers are trying to make disengagement into a traumatic experience in order to prevent another withdrawal. That's why Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has to prove after disengagement that he has the power to take control. This will give the peace process more legitimacy morally. Why do you want to take Labor out of the government after disengagement? Why not stay and try to push for another withdrawal from inside? We can't delude ourselves. Sharon is in a difficult situation. He has international support but real problems in his party. There will be no reason for Labor to stay in the government after disengagement because Sharon will try to firm up his support on the Right and will not move forward diplomatically. Bibi is running against him. Bibi will be the candidate against me in the next elections and will give the people of Israel a chance to pick between a man of the extreme right and a man of social justice and peace. It would be smart of Sharon to call elections immediately after disengagement when he will be riding public support. But he can't do that because he knows that if he tries to disperse the Knesset, Bibi could bring 61 MK and try to take over power. That's why I think the government will fall in March over the 2006 budget and force elections in May 2006. Should Israel allow Reform and Conservative marriages? We cannot continue denying people the basic right of getting married. The religious parties should realize that if they don't make compromises on this issue, it will boomerang against them. I think I can find a way to reach compromises. I am an expert in negotiations and in human nature. This gives me the ability to reach agreements between people, both within the state and with the Palestinians. So I think I can solve the problem. How would you handle a demonstration of settlers blocking the Ayalon? Every government has to implement the law. Breaking the law is anarchy. The security forces have to decide the means. The settlers are people and no one wants to harm them. But the police will eventually realize that their sensitivity to them is being exploited. I would let the police decide when their patience has run out. How would you handle a demonstration of workers blocking the Ayalon? In all the labor disputes I have led, I never allowed workers to break the law, even when they lost their livelihood. We always got police permits for closing streets. When you break the law blatantly it tends to boomerang against you. Is there a future for Jews in the Diaspora or should all Jews move here? I think the Jews of the Diaspora have made great contributions to Israel. Their influence on diplomatic decisions in their countries is the key to Israel's future. But it always has to be our first priority to encourage young Jews to move here. There is nothing wrong with Jews living all over the world. Israel is their insurance policy and they are our security net. Would kind of government would Prime Minister Peretz form? I wouldn't put the cart before the horse. Before returning to the government, we first have to bring back people to Labor. Like Rabin, I would form a government with religious parties that can make peace and bring social justice. National-unity governments are handicapped, because Likud and Labor can only unite on one issue temporarily. Without a government of social justice, it won't be possible to reach peace. Labor made a mistake by making peace elitist and pushing away to right-wing parties the people who would benefit most from peace. I want the people who pray for peace in their prayers to also vote for peace. But we have to make those people feel at home here. We have to open our doors. At what age should politicians retire? I don't think being young disqualifies you from leading the country. Young people have led many countries through difficult times. But people shouldn't vote for people just because they are young either. If people still have the power to govern, they should be allowed to continue. Age shouldn't be a consideration when deciding who should serve the nation. National service should be for people with vision who are willing to sacrifice. Shimon Peres has much to contribute to Israel and we should take advantage of his reputation around the world. Israel owes him a lot. He should be a part of crafting the future of Israel. I believe that if we in Labor focus on socioeconomic issues, Peres can continue doing his part on the issues he handles best. We need a collective leadership to take responsibility. And we shouldn't depend on meteors [like Barak] that fall right back to earth after they rise.