The odd couple

Unlike what their party's spin doctors say, the Olmert-Peretz alliance is new and fragile.

olmert peretz 88 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert peretz 88 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Tucked into a busy corner of Jerusalem's main drag, the Pinati restaurant's humous has become so popular that the standing-room only restaurant tells customers "just swallow, don't chew." When popular politicians visit the restaurant, however, their digestive needs are given slightly more consideration. On a Jerusalem stop during the final week of the election campaign, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz chose Pinati for his lunch-time break. Several hours of smooching, smiling, and socially-minded rhetoric had left Peretz exhausted, and he banished most of the media from the joint. Not to be deterred, press photographers pressed their camera lenses against the window to snap photos of Peretz as he dipped his pita into the humous and began licking the spread off his bread. "Think of the cameras, don't lick!" urged his spokesman. "A prime minister doesn't lick." Peretz, however, refused to alter his table manners. "This is me. You can take the man out of Sderot, but you can't take Sderot out of the man," he answered. "The game is up, guys. The voters are going to know I'm Moroccan." When Peretz left the restaurant an hour later, the owner remarked that it wasn't the first time a politician had been given such a lengthy lunch break. "When Olmert was here, he took more than an hour to eat,"said Pinati's owner. "His assistant was trying to tell him how to eat, too. Assistants need to learn, you can't change the way a man eats humous... It's in the blood." When Olmert visited Pinati's, the owner said, he was running for his second term as mayor of Jerusalem. When the humous was placed on Olmert's table, the owner recalled, the politician spread it on his bread with a knife, then cut the bread into pieces before eating. "He was so neat, his assistant kept telling him he looked too bourgeois. 'Dip the pita,' his assistant kept saying. 'Just dip it!'" It would be hard to find two politicians as different in their views and lifestyles as Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz - and it's not just their humous habits. One is an urbane, tie-collecting capitalist, at home in the finest New York restaurants and until recently the darling of the Eretz Yisrael Hashlema (Greater Land of Israel) lobby. The other is a blue-collar, development town socialist, who spoke out in favor of a Palestinian state over twenty years ago. Until a few months ago, contact between the two was minimal. Olmert has made many cross-aisle friendships during his life in politics, but Peretz was never one of them. Now the two men find themselves in an unlikely partnership: As leaders of the new government, their political survival over the next few years depends to a great degree on their ability to get along together. In the past, there was little reason for their political paths to cross. Olmert, the son of a Herut Knesset member, built his political career in the right-wing parties that eventually formed the Likud. In business, he based his career in his native Jerusalem and across the Atlantic. Peretz, the son of Morrocan immigrants, got his political start in the south before making his way up the Labor ladder. It was as the leader of the Histadrut trade union that he became a national political player. But there are a number of interesting similarities between the two men's careers. Both politicians were heads of local councils; Peretz began as Sderot mayor while Olmert, frustrated with life in the opposition after serving as a minister in Yitzhak Shamir's cabinet, got himself elected mayor of Jerusalem. Both politicians have shown little reluctance in making provocative statements, even those that put them at loggerheads with their colleagues. Neither did they shy away from running against well-established opponents: Olmert ran against eternal Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and tried to unseat Binyamin Netanyahu in the Likud primaries of 1999. Peretz lost the Labor nomination for Histadrut Secretary General against old guard favorite Haim Haberfeld in 1993, but got his revenge twelve years later when he shocked the party by beating Shimon Peres in the leadership race. Both also left the parties in which they grew up for new parties, Peretz when he ran a separate race in the Histadrut and again in 1999 when he left to set up Am Ehad. Olmert was one of the central figures who persuaded Sharon to break with the Likud and form Kadima. When Peretz was elected to the Knesset in 1988 as one of Labor's "eight on the lawn," the young team that was supposed to be Labor's future leadership, Olmert had been an MK for 14 years and already appeared destined for a cabinet post. For a couple of years they were members of the same coalition but had little to do with each other. Their first major interaction came in 1997, when Olmert, then the Jerusalem mayor, attacked Histadrut Secretary-General Peretz for reversing the decision to move the Histadrut headquarters from Tel Aviv to the capital. Somewhat surprisingly, however, there was little contact between the leader of Israel's organized labor and Olmert, who as Jerusalem mayor was responsible for a city that remains one of the country's largest public-sector employers. Zion Dahan, the head of the Jerusalem municipality's workers union, said this week that he can't remember even one instance of an interaction between Olmert and Peretz during that period. Last month, during the 17th Knesset's first session, Olmert and Peretz looked old school buddies as they exchanged frequent notes across the plenum floor. As the session ended, they sought each other out for a tete-a-tete, with Olmert placing his arm around Peretz as the cameras gleefully snapped away. Reporters, mystified by the seemingly friendly relationship, were assured that the two have a shared past. According to the spin doctors, the pair got along well when Olmert was Trade, Industry and Employment Minister in Sharon's second government. But most officials involved in labor talks during that period don't remember an active Olmert presence. "The Trade Ministry has little influence over labor policy," said one former senior Treasury official. "It's the purview of the Finance Minister, and Netanyahu didn't let Olmert interfere." Others remember Olmert as relatively sympathetic to the Histadrut's demands when open warfare broke out between Peretz and Netanyahu. MK David Tal (Kadima), a former member of Peretz's Am Ehad party, said the two "didn't have a special relationship, but I think that Olmert always gave him a fair hearing, especially when Bibi [Netanyahu] was being so difficult." Another official remembers Olmert trying to act behind the scenes during the dispute over the privatization of the Port Authority, one of Netanyahu's pet projects. "He was trying to help out the industrialists, who were worried about a strike at the ports," said one key adviser to the Sharon administration. "He had a part in the eventual deal that was more to the unions' liking." Any assistance provided by Olmert would have been more out of a joint dislike of Netanyahu rather than an affinity for Peretz, officials said. Olmert's close relationship with big business, which sometimes opposed Netanyahu's reforms, also played a part. "The lack of any meaningful relationship prior to this government is actually a plus," said one Olmert adviser. "It means that they can now get down to business without any pet hatreds like between Sharon and Netanyahu or personal obligations like Sharon had for Peres. For them it's all politics. Nothing's personal." Their relationship did get personal during the campaign, when Olmert and Peretz finally faced off as leaders of two rival parties, though at first, both sides kept their gloves on. "One of the conclusions we came to at the post-mortem we held after the campaign was that we didn't attack Peretz enough," said one of Kadima's strategists. In the Labor camp, aides close to the chairman also urged Peretz to attack Olmert far earlier than he did. "There was a feeling that he held his fire too long out of respect for Sharon's illness," said one Labor MK. "Many felt he should have hit far earlier and far harder." At first, the campaign centered on the battle between Likud and its breakaway faction, Kadima. Only in the race's final months, when it became clear that the Likud's strength was diminishing, did Kadima open a new front against Labor. Peretz's first attack on Olmert came the night of the Labor primaries, when Peretz's unexpected victory seemed to give him the confidence to attack Olmert directly. "I look at Olmert and I do not see someone who came from the people, who understands the needs of the people," said Peretz. "Do the people of Israel, the working citizens of Israel, really believe that Olmert has them in his sights?" Behind closed doors, Peretz sent out MKs to attack the acting prime minister's luxurious lifestyle. "He was afraid of coming across as too much of a bulldog, so he instructed several of his allies in the party to discredit Olmert in the press," said a member of Peretz's campaign team. "He wanted to keep his hands relatively clean." Serving as his main attack dog was former journalist and current MK Shelly Yechimovich, who was glad to tear into Olmert at every opportunity. Party officials said that Peretz initially struggled with two approaches to the campaign. The first, advocated by MK Yuli Tamir, urged Peretz to take a moderate tone and focus on the party's socioeconomic platform. The other, urged by Yechimovich, pushed for a more strident rhetoric. "He had to choose between the two women who were closest to him in the party," said an aide to Peretz. "He chose the Yuli [Tamir] way." Peretz didn't always keep on that path, however. A slump in the polls convinced him to change course in early February, when he accused Kadima of serious corruption at a specially convened press conference. Reporters were handed a booklet entitled "Who are you, Ehud Olmert?" which included a photograph of Olmert together with Reuven Gavrieli, who that day had been arrested on suspicion of money-laundering and running a string of illegal casinos. Kadima retaliated. One of its spokesmen released a statement slamming Peretz, claiming he had engaged in shady dealings and deriding "the intimate threesome: Peretz, the Histadrut and Rachel Turgeman (Peretz's confidant)." The allegations were repeated by other senior Kadima officials, including now Interior Minister Roni Bar-On. Peretz was enraged by what he saw as malicious personal innuendo authorized by Olmert. He summoned a number of reporters for an off-the-record briefing and told them that he didn't think it would be possible to set up a coalition with Olmert after the attack. The quotes were duly published and attributed to a "senior Labor source." Despite Kadima officials' constant portrayals of Peretz as inexperienced, unintelligent, corrupt and radical, Olmert himself barely ever referred to him. Even when he knew that Labor had prepared intensely personal TV ads attacking some of his family members for living abroad, Olmert continued not to mention Peretz in his speeches. The Labor ads were never aired, and Labor made do with a broadcast ridiculing Olmert and Netanyahu's expensive predilection for Cuban cigars. Kadima continued to pay little official attention to Peretz, save for a few campaign commercials highlighting some of his more provocative statements, which party strategists believed would be more useful in cultivating a press already highly skeptical of Peretz's leadership. Still, following the first night of televised campaign commericals, one Kadima spin-doctor couldn't resist calling reporters to say, "Peretz is so lacking in confidence on camera that he checks his fly all the time." Peretz meanwhile decided the best tactic against Olmert would be to highlight class differences between the two. On a visit to Beersheba during the final week of campaigning, Peretz beamed at a crowd of former Likud voters who chanted, "Peretz is one of us, not [a member of the] bourgeoisie." As he stood on a makeshift stage in the middle of Beersheba's industrial neighborhood, Peretz reminded the crowd that his roots were in the nearby development town of Sderot. "If you doubt my intentions, remind yourself where I come from, and you will know where my heart truly lies," Peretz told the crowd. "My opponent, with his high-flying lifestyle, doesn't understand what it is to worry over the price of bread for your children." "Election campaigns are like wars that have a fixed date. When they're over, that's it," said a senior worker in the Kadima campaign. "There's no connection between the things you said about the opponent during the elections and the reality afterwards. Everyone understands that now is the real life." In the week following the elections, however, Peretz seemed to have trouble adjusting himself to "the real life." He refused to meet with Olmert or even to take phone calls from him if they were made through a secretary and not directly by the interim Prime Minister. Peretz grumbled to reporters that Olmert was "acting high and mighty," and for one 48-hour period, it seemed his personal dislike for Olmert had grown so great he was prepared to attempt a coalition with the right-wing parties. Ultimately, the proposed "social bloc" proved a brief flirtation, and Peretz entered negotiations with Olmert. But an ice-breaking confidence measure was needed: Peretz still didn't trust Olmert. Despite the presence of an official negotiations team, he insisted on private, one-on-one meetings with his former competitor. Serious discussions became possible, however, only after 48 hours had passed following the pair's first meeting without leaks to the press. Peretz, persuaded that Olmert might be a suitable partner, accepted an invitation to the Prime Minister's Office, where the two leaders posed behind twin podiums and repeatedly shook hands while smiling for the press. More than a month after the election, both politicians now realize they need each other to survive. Olmert must prove to a skeptical public that he can be a responsible prime minister and preside over a stable government. For that he'll need Peretz, who's urgently looking to boost his own leadership credentials as a senior minister and coalition partner. The moment the two feel they have accomplished these goals, they'll each look for a way to get out of the partnership and achieve a stronger mandate for themselves in the next government. Most observers and many insiders agree that, at the most, the Olmert-Peretz alliance might last a year and a half. After that, Olmert will go back to portraying Peretz as an irresponsible opportunist, and Peretz will return to assailing Olmert as a hard-hearted capitalist. But it'll be nothing personal, of course.