When an aide interrupts an interview with a leading politician to pass him a scrap of paper with a scrawled note on it, bitter experience mandates that you prepare for the worst. So when Amir Peretz was halted in full flow during our meeting this week by a junior staffer breathlessly brandishing such a scrap, I braced for news of a suicide bombing or rocket attack. "Unbelievable," gasped the new Labor leader as he digested the handwritten text. The aide nodded, and my fears grew. Peretz looked up at me. "Unbelievable," he repeated. Then he dropped the bombshell: "Ehud Olmert went and ate lunch at a soup kitchen!" For a second or two, I thought Peretz was playing some kind of bizarre joke. Surely so seemingly mundane a domestic development could not have occasioned either the interruption or his dismayed response. But no, Peretz was genuinely distraught to learn that a Kadima leader - the finance minister indeed supped soup at Meir Panim in Jerusalem - was striving to make a personal impact in the socioeconomic field he would like to call his own. His aide had evidently been right to recognize that Peretz would want to know about it right away. The little incident served to highlight the radical redefining of Labor's national message explicit in Peretz's election as party chairman. The content of our interview thoroughly underlined it. (The full interview will appear in the Post next week.) Peretz is a former mayor and longtime resident of Sderot, only too obviously within range of Gaza's Kassam crews. Tales of one such rocket landing in his living room are exaggerated, but not by much. The offending projectile, he says, actually fell at the home of his neighbors across the street, 50 yards away. "I am familiar with every type of Kassam and I know what it is like to wake up in the middle of the night to an alert," he stresses. "It's not just something I read about in the papers. I know what it's like to go down with my kids to the bomb shelters." Yet asked what kind of military response he, our would-be prime minister, would order to the post-disengagement rocket fire across the Gaza border, Peretz asserts that these are matters for the army's uniformed top brass rather than a politician like himself. "I don't think these types of questions," he says, "should involve politicians. Give the army the tools they request." Fair enough, perhaps, if Peretz thought I was asking a very specific question about, say, particular targets or a choice of missiles or shells. But he then elaborates, in an unmistakable departure from the typical mind-set of serving and potential Israeli premiers: "The focus of governments," he says, "should not be about the defense establishment." Surely, I posit, the question of how to respond to cross-border fire, when it includes possibilities as dramatic as sending in land forces, is ultimately a national issue that must be addressed by the prime minister and his cabinet as well as the chief of the General Staff and his generals. Peretz is not immediately persuaded. Even the question of sending land forces into Gaza in the current context, he argues, is one for the military brass to determine. And it "should be weighed only if the army says that it has to return to Gaza because it needs to 'clean' a certain area or secure an area to prevent Kassam fire." In the course of the interview, Peretz does fully acknowledge the need for defense expertise and involvement at the cabinet level, and even asserts that Labor's team will be the envy of every other party. But his resolute disinclination to make security issues the focus of our conversation (he repeatedly pleads that we change the line of questioning, to economic and social affairs), and indeed of his entire prime ministerial campaign, is striking. He professes the requisite complete confidence that he will be Israel's next prime minister, and invokes Menachem Begin to bolster his contention that the post can be attained by a leader dedicated to economic welfare rather than military priorities. Begin's revolutionary victory in 1977, he declares, was achieved via a focus on "social issues. People voted for him to improve their lives." And since the socioeconomic gap is now far wider than it was when Begin ended three decades of Labor rule, Peretz argues with immense conviction, a similar revolution is entirely feasible today. "There is a tradition that the prime minister in Israel should be a military man, who then appoints professional people to the areas of finance and social affairs," Peretz notes. "I say the opposite. The prime minister should be a social general and he should appoint [expert] people in the area of defense. It works my way in most of the world." Most democratic nations don't have to worry about their day-to-day survival, I counter. But Peretz doesn't accept this either. "Today you can't say that," he claims, specifying both the UK and the US, given their bitter experiences with Islamic terrorism. My protest that the comparison is untenable is waved away. FEW PEOPLE would argue with Peretz's contention that our social fabric is under terrible strain, exacerbated by economic inequalities that are plainly producing a "have" and "have not" society in which the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest sectors is widening at a frightening pace. The Labor leader makes important points about a nation's strength deriving from factors other than its military might, and thus the existential dangers, too, presented by a populace where many feel alienated and disenfranchised economically. He protests the dramatic welfare cutbacks of recent years, laments the exploitation of workers by manpower companies, details the benefits in raising the minimum wage. But valid though such concerns and policies may be, they simply cannot exclusively dominate a general election agenda in a small, embattled country that is watching an Islamic extremist movement threatening to eclipse a far-from problem-free secular Palestinian leadership on our doorstep, and that is facing wider regional instabilities and threats headed by the Israel-loathing, nearly nuclear Iran. The location of Peretz's party headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv's working-class Hatikva neighborhood, and the swirling milieu in his offices of chain-smoking, stubbly, open-shirted aides and activists, is anything but accidental. With a photo of him in his bigger-mustached, afro-haired, young activist prime framed prominently on his office wall, Peretz emblemizes the Sephardi, no silver-spoon, hard-raised background of the voters he hopes to pull out of Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and through Ariel Sharon's Kadima into his determinedly non-elitist new Labor. And the fact is that no amount of soup-kitchen dining with the disadvantaged by the cigar-smoking likes of Olmert can hope to dent Peretz's authentic man-of-the-people credentials and appeal. But it is becoming clearer by the day that what Peretz calls remaking "the pyramid" - where the prime minister devotes his attention to the domestic social agenda, and relies on those militarily distinguished ministerial colleagues to project his government's security message and authority - is actually reversing the gains Labor made in the first heady weeks after his leadership victory. Indeed, reports in the past few days of major discontent in the Labor camp have singled out his willful avoidance of defense issues as the prime cause of his party's declining poll figures. That the Likud, following the defections of Sharon and Shaul Mofaz and former chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon's spurning of overtures, lacks a truly top-rank security figure is small comfort. Netanyahu, as a former prime minister who oversaw three almost terror-free years in 1996-99, projects a reassurance and capability Peretz cannot hope to muster even were he to try to refocus his message. Kadima, meanwhile, is positively overflowing with former high-fliers from the security establishment, with ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter only the latest recruit. Peretz determinedly talks up Ami Ayalon and Matan Vilna'i and Ephraim Sneh and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, emphatically placing Ayalon at the head of that list while insisting that he has yet to decide who might be his candidate for defense minister, and dismissing the notion that Ayalon's position at the head of the "People's Voice" campaign for a peace deal along the lines of the Clinton proposals renders him too left-wing for mainstream tastes. But for all the undoubted credentials of such Labor security figures, the fact is that the events of these early days of the election campaign period, and his handling of them, are combining to weaken Labor's "social general." Even were we now in a period of unfamiliar calm, and despite the acute economic suffering of Israel's most disadvantaged citizens, there is a ceiling, and a low one at that after a five-year terror onslaught, on the number of voters who, rightly or wrongly, would entrust their future to a man so intent on delegating security affairs. At a time that is anything but calm, with Hamas on the rise, attacks in the West Bank, Katyushas in the north and Kassams in the south, that ceiling is coming down on Amir Peretz.