Champion of the poor?

Peretz personally oversaw a campaign that culminated in NIS 350 million worth of state funds being funneled to some of the economy's best-paid workers.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz has been working hard to position himself as an attractive prime ministerial candidate: champion of the poor, devotee of the rule of law, moderate center-leftist. And judging by the media's paeans of praise, he has thus far been quite successful. Yet it requires only the most cursory glance at his record to notice that few of his stated positions actually match his past actions. As chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, for instance, Peretz, far from fighting for the p oor, has consistently fought to obtain further perks for some of the country's best-paid workers - at the expense of the truly needy. A case in point was the agreement signed last week by the state, Bank Leumi and the Leumi workers' union, under which the government will offer Leumi workers stock options in the bank at a steep discount. The union obtained this perk, which will cost the state some NIS 350 million, by implementing a series of strikes and sanctions that threatened to torpedo Leumi's privatiz ation and vowing to continue until their demand for protection money was met. Bank workers are hardly impoverished: According to Central Bureau of Statistics data, the average bank worker earned about NIS 13,600 a month this year. That is almost double t he average wage in the economy (currently some NIS 7,300 a month) and more than four times the minimum wage (about NIS 3,300). And while some bank workers obviously earn much less than this average, they will not be the main beneficiaries of the payoff: The options, as well as a NIS 120m. bonus that was included in the deal (but which will be funded by the bank rather than the state), will be divvied up according to the workers' salaries. In other words, those with the highest salaries will get the most; those with the lowest salaries will get the least. And it was Peretz, in his capacity as Histadrut chairman, who personally approved this successful extortion attempt: Not only did the strikes and sanctions require Histadrut authorization, but Histadrut officials participated in the negotiations. In other words, Peretz personally oversaw a campaign that culminated in NIS 350m. worth of state funds being funneled to some of the economy's best-paid workers. And as a result, this money will not be available to help the truly needy. NOR WAS this a one-time aberration: Earlier this year, Peretz orchestrated an identical extortion campaign at Israel Discount Bank, which ended with those workers being "compensated" for the bank's privatization to the tune of N IS 250m. Peretz also led the Histadrut's successful fight - waged, as always, via the threat of strikes and sanctions - against government efforts to make civil servants contribute fairly to their own pensions. Private-sector workers must pay 7 percent of their gross salaries into a pension fund. Yet civil servants, even high-level officials earning some NIS 30,000 a month, pay only 1%. Their pensions are funded mainly by the taxpayer - a benefit that costs the government billions of shekels a year. Ever y year, similar Histadrut campaigns force the government to give billions of shekels to the wealthiest workers in order to avoid crippling strikes - money that could otherwise be used for vital education, health and welfare projects to help the neediest I sraelis. And this protection racket has been orchestrated by none other than that "champion of the poor," Amir Peretz. PERETZ'S RESPECT for the rule of law is similarly selective. For instance, when disengagement opponents blocked roads this summer in an effort to pressure the Knesset to cancel the pullout, the Labor Party inveighed against it night and day, arguing that disrupting the country in order to bully the Knesset into changing its mind constituted an attack on the rule of law. Yet when the Knes set enacted a pension reform in May 2003, the Peretz-led Histadrut used the very same tactic that he deplored in the anti-disengagement protests two years later: It organized demonstrations throughout the country in which pensioners blocked roads, grindin g traffic to a halt, in an effort to browbeat the Knesset into repealing the law. These demonstrations took place several times a week for most of that summer. And, lest anyone think that he experienced a genuine change of heart, Peretz's Histadrut appro ved a strike just two weeks ago that was aimed at thwarting another piece of Knesset legislation: a law passed this summer that requires the banks to sell their mutual and provident funds. Discount Bank, in obedience to the law, put its funds on the block earlier this month - whereupon Discount's union promptly launched sanctions in an effort to stymie the sale. This, too, constitutes an attempt to torpedo legislation by disrupting the country: After all, it is the public that suffers when a major bank go es on strike. Thus in Peretz's view, tactics that are unacceptable when used against a law he supports are perfectly admissible against a law he opposes. And that subverts the very essence of the rule of law - which is that the rules apply equally to everyone, regardless of one's political persuasion. Finally, there is Peretz's newly minted stance as a "moderate" leftist. In an address to the Labor Party's central committee on Sunday, he resoundingly declared that Jerusalem should be Israel's undivided capital. Yet in 2000-2001, when Ehud Barak proposed giving the Palestinians half of Jerusalem - including the Temple Mount and most of the Old City - MK Peretz enthusiastically backed this proposal. At that time, he had not a word to say about the importa nce of united Jerusalem. In short, nothing in Peretz's record supports any of the poses he is currently adopting for electoral purposes. And that record is likely to be a far better guide to his future actions than any campaign rhetoric.i