Editor's Notes: His own worst enemy

Peretz was shushed on economic issues in a cabinet meeting, but who marched him to the sidelines?

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the bad blood between the heads of Israel's two main governing parties, Kadima's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor's Defense Minister Amir Peretz, publicly and pitifully surfaced as never before, making headlines that led the nightly TV news. Ministers were being briefed on the problem of municipal workers going unpaid and Histadrut threats of further consequent strike action, and Peretz volunteered that he had some suggestions for resolving the vexed issue. When Olmert told him this was not the appropriate time, as various fellow ministers reported afterwards, Peretz jumped to his feet, raised his hand angrily and staged a mini-tantrum at being silenced. He could not be calmed down and the prime minister, in desperation, was forced to temporarily halt the meeting. A week earlier, Peretz had made even more embarrassing headlines, when he was filmed and photographed sagely "viewing" military maneuvers on the Golan Heights through binoculars from which, unfortunately, the black lens caps had not been removed. There's a connection between the two incidents. And it relates to the cynical, counter-productive - and in this case appallingly costly - process by which senior politicians are shoehorned, or sometimes shoehorn themselves, into entirely inappropriate jobs. It's not hard to understand how it was that Peretz came to so lose his cool on Tuesday. He must be permanently close to the edge. It's a lot harder, however, to sympathize with him. For month after month, in the wake of last summer's fatally mismanaged conflict with Hizbullah, Peretz has known all too well how out of his depth he is at the Defense Ministry, even if he has steadfastly refused to publicly acknowledge this and swallow the sensible remedy of changing ministerial job. The binoculars fiasco, source of such merriment for Jay Leno et al, was a little unfair - President Bush and, it is said, Ariel Sharon, were both caught in similar poses - but it was thoroughly emblematic. The unseeing Peretz failed last summer, through inexperience, to discern that his chief of staff Dan Halutz was placing exaggerated faith in what could be done from the air to destroy Hizbullah. Too full of hubris to remove the figurative lens covers, Peretz failed to ask the kind of pointed questions, or seek the kind of expert input, that would have revealed the flaws in Halutz's thinking and yielded a more realistic approach to the conflict - an approach that, it can reasonably be argued, would have saved many precious lost lives. The average human brain's capacity for self-delusion is quite dazzling. In politicians, if only for the sake of their own mental well-being, it must be particularly advanced. But however sophisticated Peretz's self-delusion mechanisms, they must surely have been long since defeated by the terrible weight of evidence that he made a dreadful mistake in taking the Defense Ministry portfolio in the coalition negotiations a year ago. And now, on Tuesday, he was seated at the cabinet table, hearing about a subject in which he genuinely considers himself, perhaps even rightly, to have some expertise: income inequalities and labor disputes - just the sort of issues he routinely handled in his former incarnation as head of the Histadrut. And there was the prime minister, his partner and opponent and the man who, he may feel (however unjustly), forced him into the Defense Ministry in the first place, denying him the opportunity to speak out when he really thought he could make a difference. No wonder Peretz blew his top. But instead of shouting at his rivals, Peretz should know he has only himself to blame. Peretz is far from the first square peg to be hammered into a round hole as a consequence of our untenable election system, and of the paranoia and eccentricities of those it elevates to positions of power. As our analyst Anshel Pfeffer observed in these pages last week, it's hard to see which qualifications Shas's Ariel Attias brings to the actually quite important role of communications minister or to fathom the logic of moving a competent tourism minister, Yitzhak Herzog, to social affairs. But of course there is no logic, other than that of short-term and narrow political expediency. Similarly puzzling-to-absurd appointments abound in recent history: Non-English speaker David Levy wooing the world as foreign minister; secularist Yossi Beilin at Religious Affairs (which he promptly closed down); academic Shlomo Ben-Ami as police minister... But Peretz, the man who insisted to this writer in the run-up to the elections that he was emphatically not the right man to dominate security debate in the cabinet, is the most egregious square peg of all. His is the highest profile and most crucial of the posts to have been filled by the poorest of choices, and in circumstances, to boot, where the appointee could have insisted on a variety of other, more suitable cabinet positions, but was not prepared to sacrifice the perceived prestige. So the rest of the country has had to sacrifice instead. THE UNSUITABILITY of Peretz for Defense is only half of the problem. The other half stems from the missed opportunity of him taking a socio-economic portfolio. Labor did rather well in last year's general elections. Peretz, as all major party leaders must, professed himself to be eyeing the prime ministership, asserting in the face of opinion polls and conventional wisdom that Labor would win and form the government. That was patently absurd, but 19 seats - precisely the number held by Labor in the previous Knesset - wasn't at all a bad showing. Labor, after all, is still crippled for having rehabilitated Yasser Arafat, the "partner" whose peacemaking credentials were shattered in the eyes of the Israeli mainstream by his no to Ehud Barak at the 2000 Camp David talks. The party could hardly have been helped, either, by the establishment of Kadima, a grouping with ambitions to woo voters from across the middle ground, most certainly including long-time Laborites. That Labor held onto its 19 seats was in no small part due to the campaigning of its chairman Peretz and his personal credibility - Sephardi man of the people, resident of unfashionable Sderot, labor organizer, friend of the poor, the leader who put an elitist party back in touch with at least part of its former working class constituency. Israel has a growing problem of "haves" and "have-nots." Income levels among the top earners are as staggeringly high as those among the most impoverished are low. We are a nation, increasingly, of Holocaust survivors living in slum conditions, of soup kitchens, of volunteer aid organizations struggling to meet ever-greater demand. Between the extremes, too, there are hundreds of thousands of families struggling to get through the month. Families often with more than one bread winner. Families often with one or both parents doing highly responsible jobs, but for salaries that, in today's economy, with today's housing prices and living costs, just don't stretch far enough. Many of those voters plumped for Peretz last year; they voted Labor because they believed he would make their plight his priority in government. The 17 percent who voted Labor in Beersheba thought he'd put them at the top of his agenda, and the 18% in Dimona and the whopping 25% in his home town. He let them down - as, incidentally, our politicians will be free to continue to let us down so long as we don't push hard enough for an improved electoral system. Even as the minister ruling a socio-economic fiefdom, Amir Peretz plainly would not have alleviated our economic inequalities at a stroke. His proposed solutions might even have exacerbated the problems and would certainly have provoked much incendiary economic debate at the cabinet table and beyond. But in his absence, for almost a full year we had insufficient debate, and no minister of social affairs at all. BARRING SOMETHING very fishy in the Labor membership register, Peretz will not be his party's chairman for much longer. For now, ahead of May's leadership contest, the faithful seem to be split between Barak, the security veteran who insists he knew all along Camp David was going to fail and was cleverly bent on exposing the duplicitous Arafat, and Ami Ayalon, the security veteran who speaks with a searchlight intensity that risks sending voters running for cover. Ophir Paz-Pines, a personable man of apparent mature political principle if somewhat immature diplomatic sensibilities, is the dark horse. Whoever wins, however, will now have a double hurdle to clear in reviving Labor: It is still the party that brought us Arafat, but it is also now the party that brought us Peretz - the defense minister so blind behind his capped binoculars that he never saw he had abandoned his voters.