We'd all heard weeks in advance that Bill Clinton
would be speaking. It had been assumed Shimon Peres
would, too. And that Amir Peretz
would be hurriedly added to the guest list in the wake of his unforeseen victory over Peres for the Labor leadership.
So the most unexpected speaker at last Saturday's gathering in central Tel Aviv
, to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
in the now renamed square where the terrible deed occurred, was the Likud's Tzipi Livni
, our minister of justice.
It was precisely because she holds that position, Livni declared, that she felt it important to be at the gathering - to emphasize that the crime a decade ago did not merely fell a beloved family man and the head of a political party, but the serving prime minister of the country that is precious to us all. She didn't vote for Rabin, Livni noted, somewhat unnecessarily. She didn't support his policies on the Palestinians. But they were policies that, as the leader democratically elected by his people, he had the right to implement. And thus the assassin's bullets that prevented him from doing so wounded the very essence of our democracy, wounded us all.
Livni received what was arguably the evening's third-loudest ovation when, elaborating on our need to absorb that the killing of Rabin was an act that transcended narrow partisan interests, she declared that the rally was not about party politics.
Except that, simply by the nature of those who were in the square to hear her, it was very partisan indeed. For this was no cross-section of Israeli society gathered in Rabin Square. Not remotely. This was a largely Ashkenazi, largely secular, largely Dan-region crowd. If the traffic, or lack thereof, on the roads to and from Jerusalem is anything to go by, there were precious few who made the journey from the capital. There was barely a kippa in sight.
And for this crowd, Livni was particularly strongly applauded, I think, precisely because she was not an expected, natural presence but was, rather, the warm-spirited visitor from across the hall.
Doubtless many more Israelis, from many more sectors of the population than were strongly represented in the square, deeply mourn the loss of Rabin the man and leader, and mourn the fact of his killing for the fundamental patriotic reasons stressed by Livni as well. For whatever reason, however, they chose not to emphasize that identification by coming out in person to listen to the speeches.
And despite Livni's commendable espousal and reiteration of the Rabin assassination as a pan-Israeli tragedy, one of her fellow speakers probably left many of those who chose not to come - those who stayed away because they felt they might not belong -- convinced that they had been right to do so.
Clinton, who was ecstatically received, was passionate, but he was vague, in urging all of us to complete the work for which he said his beloved friend knowingly risked his life. Peres - so often at his most compelling and powerful immediately after he has lost an election race - admirably called for the wider involvement of young Israelis in political activism, to take Israel's
future into their hands.
But Amir Peretz, in what he was plainly intent on exploiting as his first major public appearance after defeating Peres, scathingly undermined Livni's attempt at national harmonizing and made what amounted to an electoral broadcast for his brand of Labor politics.
In a period where our leaders have been justifiably assailed for frequently concealing their true sympathies and intentions from the electorate, there is much to be said for a new political player who sets out his beliefs with such unmistakable clarity and gusto. After his brief but telling few minutes at the microphone, we all now know that Amir Peretz will not be attempting to dishonorably conceal his deeply held dovish beliefs about peacemaking with the Palestinians in a shallow attempt to widen Labor's electoral appeal across the center and into the right.
He chose to use the most dramatic language imaginable - and won the warmest applause of any speaker bar Clinton for it -- to highlight his concern at the corrupting influence on Israeli morality of our ongoing rule over millions of West Bank Palestinians. And by issuing a ringing endorsement of the Oslo process, indeed willing that moribund process back to life, he made crystal clear that, like Yossi Beilin
, and unlike the many senior Labor figures who are deeply discomfited by his emergence, his faith in the short-term viability of a negotiated path to a permanent accord with the Palestinians has survived intact the failure of Camp David and the past five years of terrorism.
Unfortunately, however, Peretz's unabashed determination to preach party politics at the Rabin memorial ensured that, next year too, participants such as Livni from across the Oslo divide will be the exceptions rather than the rule at what ought to be as widely unifying and sobering an occasion as possible.
Moreover, so definite a speech, at so widely reported an event, coming so soon after his leadership victory, may prove to have been poor politics for Peretz. Indeed, it is already being argued that it may come to be seen as the beginning of a rerun of his predecessor Amram Mitzna's
na ve campaign for the premiership, a principled bid but one patently unpalatable to much of the electorate.
YET PERETZ is not na ve. He is a dogged, savvy and hugely confident man, a demonstrably capable, no-holds-barred organizer, and an "in your face" radical. He triumphantly pursued a party leadership campaign that he was derided for mounting and deemed to have no chance of winning. And now he is moving at full-speed to revive Labor, hitherto Ariel Sharon's
compliant coalition lapdog, as a genuine political alternative.
Every general election in our recent past has hinged to a considerable extent on the nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the run-up to polling day, and the next one will be no exception. The four suicide bombings in February-March 1996 doomed Peres's effort to succeed Rabin and brought Netanyahu to power. Three years later, Netanyahu ironically paid the price for the relative calm as the electorate renewed its hope in the possibility of peacemaking offered by Barak. And Sharon's two subsequent victories over Barak and Mitzna reflected the despair and security fears entrenched by the relentless onslaught of terrorism.
If Mahmoud Abbas is still ineffectual, and Islamic Jihad
and the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades are blowing us up as polling day nears, Peretz's impassioned calls for a return to Oslo-style negotiation will resonate no more widely than did Mitzna's, and bring Labor no significantly enhanced share of the vote.
His potential to lift Labor out of the Barak and Mitzna decline necessitates relative calm on the Palestinian front, an unlikely calm that prompts a shift away from the traditional rightist determination to retain all of Judea and Samaria and a reassessment, too, of the merits of Sharon-style unilateralism over negotiation. It is only in such a climate that the Moroccan-born, would-be people's champion can hope to truly flourish - but not because he could win over large numbers of converts to his policies on the Palestinians. Rather, their misgivings over his Oslo thinking just might be overwhelmed by their backing for his socio-economic ideals.
Our country is riven by inequality, with an impossibly strained health service, an appallingly underfunded educational system, and the worrying normalization of exploitative employment practices fuelling a horrifying divide between the haves and have-nots - a divide that is said to be widening more rapidly than in any other Western country.
The very fact of Peretz's emergence has already prompted Sharon to declare at least rhetorical war on poverty. With economic and social issues dominating debate, could Peretz take many votes from Shas
, with its rather too elegantly sharp-suited political leaders who go so quiet between election campaigns? Would substantial numbers of the Likud's working-class voters be sufficiently disgruntled by its identity crisis as to cross over? Might even some of Shinui's
former Labor voters, unimpressed by its shabby in-fighting and compromised principles, be won back? Maybe.
In all three cases, of course, a less determinedly dovish Labor leader would have been a more likely vote-winner. But, eschewing the dead-end street of crowning 82-year-old Peres for another stint, Labor's voters went instead for prickly, leftie, in-your-face Peretz, the man who, when asked by an eager BBC
reporter immediately after his win, "Who is Amir Peretz?", gloriously responded, in lumbering English and with a complete absence of political tact, by saying something to the effect of, "Who am I?! I might as well ask, 'Who are you?!'"
And the fact is that while it would have been ridiculous for Peres or any other leader of Labor, a party largely perceived as a bastion of Ashkenazi elitism, to try and brand himself as the champion of the suffering underclass, it is not absurd for Peretz, the self-made Sephardi from Sderot
A cartoon in Britain's Sunday Times
this week showed the two rivals vying for the leadership of the opposition Conservative Party
, David Cameron
and David Davies, under the cruelly accurate caption, "Who will lead the Tories
to oblivion this time?" A similar caption might have been thoughtlessly applied to the Peres-Peretz battle, too. Deepened oblivion patently beckoned for Labor under Peres's continued leadership. But under Peretz, depending on the wider political mood? At the very least, his election has hurled a great big rock into the middle of Israel's stagnant political pool.