Amir Peretz's long battle for acceptance

amir peretz 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
amir peretz 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amir Peretz's victory over Shimon Peres in the Labor Party leadership primary might have come as a huge surprise to outsiders - and indeed to many party members - but within his campaign, there had been a clear sense of achievement for the last week. The fact that Peretz's candidacy, which started out 10 months ago with only 4 percent in the polls and him last in the field of contenders, had finally established him as a legitimate leader and the heir-apparent of the left wing, was seen as victory enough, even if he didn't beat Peres. The campaign was first and foremost a battle for acceptance. Peretz began it as the quintessential outsider, like the youths who used to be sent from development towns and poor neighborhoods to kibbutz schools, but were never accepted as equals. As a politician, he was easily marginalized. A Morrocan-born trade unionist and mayor of Sderot at 31, like so many Sephardi leaders before him, he was deemed suitable only to deal with social affairs, while leaving the more weighty issues of defense and diplomacy to the generals who automatically traded their uniforms for cabinet positions. But Peretz's image was not only due to his background. Over the years, he had become a divisive figure. His outspoken views were a factor, not only on matters such as minimum wages and privatization, but also on security issues. He positioned himself at the most radical edge of Labor, supporting a Palestinian state 20 years ago, when it was still a dirty word. As chairman of the Histadrut, he was seen as a power-hungry agitator, prepared to damage a fragile economy to score points against the government and the industrialists. Over the last 12 years, he broke with the party twice, in the election for Histadrut leadership and then in the 2002 general elections, when he led the workers' rights Am Ehad list. The last 10 months have essentially been a slow and relentless drive back to the heart of the party's consensus. Beginning with his readmission to the party last year, ironically with the support of Peres, he has employed two weapons in his campaign. The first was the coalition he built around himself. His two main strategists, political adviser Motti Morel and spokesman Tom Wagner, made sure that at all his public appearances he was surrounded by a diverse array of Labor types. Not only trade unionists and development town leaders, but also MK Yuli Tamir, who represents left-wing academia, veteran educator Lova Eliav from the party's past leadership, senior figures in the kibbutz movement like Muki Tzur, and prominent businessmen like former Koor chairman Benny Gaon, to show that he wasn't an enemy of the business community. This rainbow coalition allowed him to enter places where he was previously seen as the barbarian at the gates, like the Jerusalem ivory tower, the kibbutzim and the hi-tech community. The demoralized party membership, lacking a real leader capable of replacing Peres, began to see him as a real option. His second weapon was organization. While the other contenders relied on their record, their self-image as vote-winners and their established camps of supporters, Peretz made sure to sign up thousands of new party members and set up a computerized apparatus, with the help of his new hi-tech supporters, to make sure that they would come out to vote. His opponents accused him of using Histadrut resources for his personal campaign, but the low-key nature of his organization allowed him to deflect these charges. On Sunday night, Peretz visited Ein Shemer, an aristocratic kibbutz near Caesarea, and was warmly received. He basked in the support he received from Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, the 99-year-old Labor grandee and patriarch of the kibbutz movement. He called them "brothers and sisters" and emphasized that it was important that his candidacy gain kibbutz votes. Two nights later, he ended his campaign at a small rally in a Sderot backyard. With millionaires, kibbutzniks and professors by his side, he finally managed to project the image of of the only leader capable of bringing together the "new" and "old" Israel and the underprivileged "second Israel." Whether there is substance behind the fa ade and if the divisive firebrand is capable of uniting a polarized society remains to be seen, but for now, the promise is enough.