Scrap the neckties, bring on social justice

Why I am voting for Amir Peretz.

Amir Peretz briefly grabbed the limelight in November when he upset frontrunner Shimon Peres for the Labor Party leadership, heralding a severe shakeup on the local political Richter scale. This was soon overshadowed by Ariel Sharon, who shattered the scale entirely by dumping the Likud, which he created, and fathering a powerful new offspring, Kadima, which has all the other parties running scared. After an initial promising showing in public opinion polls Peretz began to slide, and some forecasters have Labor hardly doing better than the emasculated Likud. Critics, both within and outside his party, lost no time in pointing fingers at Peretz. They say that he messed up by not making sure that his defeated rival Peres would not bolt to Kadima, and by not enticing former prime minister Ehud Barak to stand by him. These critics claim that Peretz has neglected security and foreign policy and that these two heavyweights are needed to give some bulk to this aspect of his platform. This is ludicrous since Labor is still overloaded with former top-ranking security personnel - more than any other party. On the other hand, one of the Likud security portfolio options, for example, is Ehud Yatom, who never quite made it to the top of the Shin Bet. He is most well known for bashing in the heads of two terrorist prisoners and blaming it on army general Yitzhak Mordechai. In any case, who says you need a security background to run a country? The current commander-in-chief of the US armed forces had a somewhat dicey low-ranking career in the service. And if Silvan Shalom can be foreign minister, anyone can dabble in diplomacy. The critics fault Peretz for concentrating on social and economic issues. While these might be less sexy than the diplomatic stuff, they are of much more immediate concern to a majority of the population. With 700,000 poor kids in the country it is imperative that the shockingly wide social gap be bridged. And even if Reaganite capitalists start foaming at the mouth, education, welfare and health budgets must be boosted. A livable minimum wage must be introduced so that full-time workers can support their families. There are perfectly respectable, modern Western countries that manage to maintain social-democratic systems of government that take care of the welfare of their citizens and still achieve economic growth. Since this is what Peretz is advocating, more power to him. ONE OF the more asinine criticisms of Peretz revolves around moustache and tie. Some spin quacks and image manipulators have remarked that he should remove the former and acquire the latter. The moustache? Something wrong about looking like the majority of men in the Mediterranean basin and the Mideast, where Israel happens to be situated? About the tie, the complaint is that because the long-time champion of the workers does not wear a tie, this somehow detracts from a statesmanlike image. Well, I assume, if he does achieve high office Peretz will don a tie for state occasions. He is wearing a natty jacket, sans tie, on election posters around the country. Accepted practice in the State of Israel is that you do not have to wear a jacket and tie, even on formal occasions. I personally have not worn a tie, except on Purim, during the past several decades. The last time I was invited to luncheon with President Moshe Katsav at his official residence, I did not wear a jacket and tie, and no one took it amiss, even though the head of state was wearing a suit and tie and the headwaiter had a tux. Ben-Gurion wasn't crazy about ties, and did rather well as prime minister. He used to refer to formal attire as his "working clothes." As former generals, Sharon and his predecessor Barak are not used to suits, and look much more comfortable and authoritative when kitted out in a windbreaker and an open-necked shirt, reminiscent of the battledress they wore most of their lives. It should be noted that Israel Defense Force uniforms are much less flashy than those of any other army, yet no one questions the effectiveness of IDF soldiers. Moreover, as Speaker Reuven Rivlin reported last week, the last Knesset was not distinguished by diligence, decorum or honesty despite being more formally dressed than in the early days. Jackets and ties are simply not suitable for Middle East weather most of the year. It is extremely annoying to see TV sportscasters, among others, suited up as if for a Wall Street board meeting. Sports shirts are much more suitable as an Israeli dress code - even for venerable Channel 1 anchor Haim Yavin. I blame Menachem Begin for transplanting the manners and dress code of Polish gentry to this sultry clime. He was always immaculately buttoned up in suit and tie and indulged in lots of bowing, scraping and hand-kissing. In addition to the superficial conformity to a more genteel behavior, Begin also unleashed cutthroat capitalism on the unwitting populace. So, Amir Peretz, promise to toss out the suits and restore social justice, and you'll get my vote. The writer is a former military correspondent and managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.