Analysis: Zig-zagging, amateurish Peretz bungles leadership role

The list of the Labor chairman's disappointed supporters is growing ever longer.

amir peretz 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amir peretz 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The list of Amir Peretz's disappointed supporters is growing ever longer. It's not only Labor Party members and the assorted professors and businessmen who joined his bandwagon before the elections. The real backbone of his following was hundreds of social activists, people with low media profiles who have spent thousands of hours on the community front lines. They were the ones with the real hope that Peretz's elevation to the Labor leadership heralded a new type of social agenda and an end to politics as usual. Last week one of them, a young man who has already founded two highly effective volunteer organizations during his brief career, pulled a wry smile when asked about his current attitude toward Peretz. "It was never about Amir," he said. "It was the idea, and we're carrying on with that." Peretz has lost his most instinctive followers just as he has missed every opportunity to prove to them and the wider public that he is capable of transforming from a rabble-rousing union secretary-general into a national leader. His insistence on Tuesday night on not voting for the 2007 state budget, despite the entreaties of his fellow Labor ministers, who tried to convince him that the party had succeeded in getting the best deal possible from the Treasury officials, proves that he doesn't have the political finesse necessary to survive as leader. Bruised and battered from the Lebanon war, Peretz had two options for political survival: He could have entered into a pact with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, helping him to fend off criticism and keep the coalition afloat until both of them had recovered and accumulated some new political credit, or he could have gone on the offensive, using the upcoming budget debate to precipitate a crisis. Either option would have required the backing of the Labor ministers, and he probably would have received it if he had charted a clear course. Instead he began with conciliatory tones, opposing a state commission of inquiry over the war's scandals, just like Olmert, and establishing the short-lived Shahak Committee to study the IDF's shortcomings. But last week, he suddenly changed tack and announced his support for a state commission. His colleagues were understandably baffled; party rivals sneeringly welcomed a step they had been advocating since the war, and his remaining supporters were embarrassed. The budget fiasco was even stranger. At first Peretz followed the military's line, faithfully pushing the IDF's demands for an extra NIS 30 billion to replenish the recent war's expenditures and to prepare for the next. Belatedly realizing this would mean an end to all his grand social plans, he brazenly claimed that the military's needs could be met without harming budgets for alleviating poverty. He seemed to be coming to terms with the situation when, last week, he pressured rebel Labor MKs on the Knesset Finance Committee to refrain from blocking the emergency budget changes and promised that the issue wouldn't bring the coalition down. It was his ministers, especially Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Culture Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, threatening to vote against the budget in light of Treasury plans to slash their budgets, who were dismayed by the lack of support they were getting from their leader. Imagine their indignation when Peretz suddenly decided to make a stand when his pet project, the minimum wage, came under threat. The promise of a $1,000 monthly minimum wage was at the center of Peretz's election platform and his main achievement in the coalition agreement with Kadima. This was too much, and the old trade unionist reemerged from beneath the defense minister's suit. But by the time Peretz was back to his old self, his colleagues had negotiated satisfactory agreements with the Treasury boys over their ministries' concerns and asking why Peretz was bent on ruining it all now. He wasn't even prepared for a compromise in which the scheduled rise in the minimum wage would only be postponed by four months. The six Labor ministers accused Peretz of caring only about his own prestige, marched into the cabinet room and voted in favor of the budget, leaving Peretz on his own, a leader with no followers. And if that wasn't enough, the next morning he was greeted by the news of the first high-profile resignation within the IDF General General Staff in the aftermath of the war. Calls for the defense minister to follow suit weren't far behind. Peretz insisted on Wednesday that he couldn't forsake the main issue that he campaigned on, that to do so would be a betrayal of his voters. He is obviously worried about his plummeting approval ratings and believes that the only way to regain some of his lost popularity is to become the good old Peretz once more. Supporting a state commission and opposing the Treasury's budget draft are obviously popular steps, but Peretz can't have things both ways. A populist firebrand and the defense minister can't be the same person. And even if Peretz manages to make a clear choice regarding which he wants to be, there don't seem to be many people out there who will take another chance on him.