Amir Peretz visits Gaza evacuees

Labor candidate visits evacuees in tent camp, talks to Russians in Ashkelon.

smile peretz 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
smile peretz 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Minutes after Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz left the street side market of Kiryat Malachi Sunday, shopkeepers conducted their own impromptu election poll While the results were unclear, Kadima and Peretz were neck in neck as allegations of voter fraud arose over a missing crate of diet coke), one result stood clear - they all thought Peretz was a swell guy. "I 'm not voting because I have made up my mind that this government is corrupt and I don't want to be a part of it," said Orly Pinchas. "But I think Peretz is a great guy." Down the street, the local Likud Party branch members couldn't agree more. "We don't have anything bad to say about Peretz," said one of the local activists who declined to give his name. "But vote for Likud." Labor Party officials have been increasingly frustrated as Peretz's whistle stop campaign continues to bring in cheering crowds and vows of support while the party remains stagnant in the polls. Even as Peretz met with groups of blue collar workers in Beer Sheba, and former settlers of Elei Sinai, constituents who have not traditionally supported the Labor Party, more jokes were exchanged than barbs. "No politician would dare show his face here, and for good reason," said one youth who only gave his name as "Amir." For seven months, Amir and his family have been living in a tent camp behind a gas station of Yad Mordechi. Although the community voluntarily evacuated Elei Sinai and agreed to move, en masse to a kibbutz near Ashkelon, the settlers say that bureaucratic red strings have kept them from beginning to build their new community. "We feel abandoned here," said Sarita Maoz, the former head of the evacuees' settlement council and their current leader. "We feel abandoned here. Everyone keeps coming up with excuses for us and not real solutions." "I promise that I will make an example out of you, I will make it my personal project to cut off the strings that tie up your permanent homes," Peretz told the settlers. "It may sound funny but I will walk away from this meeting with a stone lifted from my heart. I wanted to know that you could be real partners for real solutions. Now I know that." "Peretz is everything we wanted to hear," said Amir, after Peretz boarded his bus. "He didn't make vague promises or just assign blame somewhere else. He told us he would sit us in a room until the bureaucracy was worked out." Although Peretz made a favorable impression, it might not mean anything on election day, said the former settlers. "We may like him, but it's not enough to make us vote next week. We are too bitter," said Amir. In Kiryat Malachi, a local crowd chanted "one of us" in Arabic, to the Moroccan-born Peretz. "He feels real, home-grown, and honest," said Nisim Zaham, who owns a produce stall in the market. Although Zaham has voted Likud for nearly 30 years, he said that on March 28, he will vote Labor. "Over here, we feel really strongly that he is one of us, from the neighborhood," said Zaham. While others agreed, many said that a general feeling of apathy surrounding the upcoming elections might keep many from voting despite a personal affinity for Peretz. Several hours later, Peretz visited Kibbutz Be'eri outside Ashkelon. While the Kibbutz Movement has traditionally been a staunch supporter of Labor, many said that Peretz's race and appearance may have distanced kibbutz members from the party and pulled them over to Kadima. "I'll admit that in the beginning I was drawn over to Kadima," said Marinette Majzner, who has lived on the Kibbutz and voted Labor since 1968. "But I came back to my senses and now I feel stronger than ever that I will vote Labor." Although many on the kibbutz thought that Peretz was "nothing but a big mouth" following his upset victory over Shimon Peres in the Labor primaries, the mood has generally changed in favor of Peretz said Majzner. "It's our history, we have always voted Labor and the few people who have spoken ill of Peretz are ultimately only going to help him by driving more kibbutzniks out to vote," said Dalia Levi, who has lived on the kibbutz since the early 1970s. "There is a feeling that no one else cares about us or will work for us."