Popular journalist joins Labor Party

Peretz: Shelly Yehimovic's joining is "important day in Israeli politics."

Hemorrhaging leaders daily, the Labor Party worked to staunch the bleeding Tuesday by announcing the addition of TV journalist and social crusader Shelly Yehimovic to its party list. The move comes a day after Shimon Peres left the Labor Party and Dalia Itzik announced she would follow another ex-Laborite, Haim Ramon, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party. The acquisition of Yehimovic, a long-time ally of Labor Chairman Amir Peretz, underscores "New Labor's" emphasis on solving Israel's social and economic afflictions rather than drawing the borders of the country alongside a Palestinian state. Peretz hailed Yehimovic's joining his Party as "one of the most important days in Israeli politics." Speaking alongside her new boss at an informal press conference at Labor's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Yehimovic returned the compliment calling the advent of Peretz "an unprecedented opportunity in Israeli politics" to get things right and form a "real social-democratic party." The former host of Israel's Meet the Press program on Channel 2 would be a "senior partner for the leadership of the party and the country," Peretz said. Yehimovic's addition adds a strong female figure to a party dominated by men and suffering from the loss of Itzik. "I have no doubt that every woman in Israel is proud today," Peretz said, "because they know that one of fiercest fighters of women's rights has entered politics." Yehimovic assured reporters that she and Peretz's Labor are a perfect match. "There is no one in politics with whom I so identify," she said sitting between Labor Party Secretary General Eitan Cabel and Peretz on Cabel's office couch. Throughout much of the interview, Peretz's arm was draped behind her. Clearly close, the two embraced warmly when Peretz marched into Cabel's office for an informal press conference. They then embraced again at the behest of a cameraman for Channel 2, Yehimovic's former employer. Yehimovic's foray into politics surprised many political observers. But both Peretz's aides and Yehimovic said the transition was a "natural" one for her. Peretz and Yehimovic go far back. They first met 23 years ago when as a cub reporter she covered Israel's south at the same time as Peretz blazed onto the political scene as the fiery mayor of Sderot, Yehimovic recalled. A top Labor Party official told The Jerusalem Post that while the loss of Itzik and Peres, arguably the dean of Israeli politics, hurt the party, Labor would emerge even stronger and more united. Acrimony between Peres and Peretz peaked Monday when the Peretz camp accused Peres's brother of "racist" remarks for likening the mustachioed Labor leader to Spain's deceased dictator Francisco Franco. But Peretz has been criticized from within and without the party for steering Labor towards the left-wing shoals of Israeli politics. Yehimovic's starring on his Knesset list forces Labor to compete with other social crusaders from parties like Meretz. Peretz defended his choice Tuesday, railing against the mindset of "vote contractors," who bring a grassroots organization and a certain number of votes with them to the Party. Peretz vowed that, uniquely in Israeli politics, his list "will be one in which every member will believe in the path we have set." Yehimovic has believed in Peretz's path for years. In the corridor of the Labor Party's headquarters in Tel Aviv's working-class Hatikva neighborhood, she told a reporter that "a reporter must come to work with a [political] agenda and to express it all the way." She has waited for years for someone to express Peretz's agenda, she said. Over the past few years, Yehimovic's caricature Heli, played on the satire TV show Eretz Nehederet, has become something of a cult figure for her moral crusading and militant feminism. Asked what type of treatment the show would allot Heli the politician, the real Yehimovic smiled and said, "well, I don't know. But it will be interesting."