Middle Israel: The jinx

Israel today has a million 'Russians' whose patience for Peretz's neo-Marxist rhetoric is no higher than Betar Jerusalem fans' is for his unreconstructed Osloism.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Shimon Peres never tires of reminding everyone that his first electoral victory came in 1944, when he won the leadership of the Noar Ha'oved Vehalomed youth movement. What he neglects to mention is that it was also his last. During the following three generations, while leaving an indelible imprint on Israel's history as the builder of its aerospace industry, architect of its nuclear program, rehabilitator of its economy, and mastermind of its peace accords with Jordan and the Palestinians, Peres lost 10-odd election contests between his bids for the premiership, the presidency and Labor's leadership. No wonder, then, that so many of his admirers were resigned to the conclusion that their hero was politically jinxed. He wasn't. Peres's electoral failures of course had an element of bad luck, considering that they were all narrow, except the debacle of 1977. Yet his biographers would be wrong to focus on why he failed to somehow tip the scale and win at least one narrow victory himself, rather than ask why the tipping was always necessary in the first place. Eventually, they will agree that whether justly or not, Peres became the ultimate lightning rod for thousands of socially disenfranchised, politically disillusioned and ideologically alienated Israelis. For some, the well-read, Harvard-educated, Polish-born product of the Jewish state's founding establishment personified the cosmopolitan Ashkenazi elite they always envied and sometimes detested. For others, he was the hopelessly uncharismatic technocrat whose fiery speeches and visionary posture sounded like poor imitations of Ben-Gurion and Begin. And for yet others, he was the pipe-dreamer who unwittingly helped touch off this decade's violence by choosing to waltz with Yasser Arafat. Of course there was also that part of Israel that admired Peres as a prophet, warrior and builder, and would follow him through thick and thin, but they represented the more affluent, better educated and demographically shrinking part of the country. FOR HIS part, Peres was inspired by his old friend Fran ois Mitterrand's and his arch-nemesis Menachem Begin's rise to power after numerous electoral defeats. And as the years passed and Peres surpassed by decades the ages at which those two became winners, he thought of Konrad Adenauer, whose leadership of West Germany into a glorious postwar era of peace and prosperity ended only when he was 87. Last week all hopes of becoming analogous with such tales of reversed fortunes and late blossoming were dashed once and for all. Shimon Peres will instead be compared with Mikhail Gorbachev and Frederik de Klerk, whose ignition of geopolitical earthquakes came at the expense of their personal careers. And if the peaceful and prosperous Middle East he so stubbornly envisioned emerges after all, Peres may well be compared with Moses, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land but was barred by God from entering it. One way or another, last week's emergence of Peres's charismatic, proletarian, provincial and non-Ashkenazi successor has made many celebrate the demise of Labor's jinx. In their unconcealed enthusiasm for his underdog victory, some of my colleagues rushed to celebrate Peretz as a man whose attitude toward the Palestinians lacks Peres's patronizing and Sharon's suspicions (Akiva Eldar); the man who will shake off Israel's "bear hug" by government and big business who jointly cause "distributional injustice" (Avirama Golan); a man who is viewed by the poor as "one of them" (Daniel Ben-Simon); and the man who will restore Israel's social safety net (Ruth Sinai). In reality, several months from now such predictions are likely to prove premature at best, unfounded at worst. Labor will again be defeated, and thus be handed a painful reminder that Peres was not the cause but the symptom of its disease of self-deception. AMIR PERETZ'S first non-starter is his take on the Palestinian situation. To tell Middle Israel, in 2005, that the absence of peace is Israel's fault, and that "Oslo is alive and well" is about as electoral for him as it would be for an American politician to tell American voters that 9/11 was their fault. But who is talking about Middle Israelis? Judging by the pundit euphoria, Peretz has all but pocketed not only them but also, and first of all, the working class. Well, I challenge him to go next week to Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium, grab a microphone at halftime and suggest to that microcosm of hard-core, proletarian Likud voters that the terror they endured since Oslo was not because Israel had offered the Palestinians too much, as they think, but because it had offered too little, as he thinks. With all due respect to the Moroccan roots he shares with that audience, Peretz can rest assured that he will in such a case be met with the same boos, slurs and curses that his delusional admirers consider reserved for the "jinxed" Peres. On the social level Peretz's cause is a little better. There truly are thousands of disenfranchised people in today's Israel who might follow him the way they previously followed Likud and Shas. However, what Peretz's new enthusiasts forget in this regard is that Israel is no longer structured demographically the way it was back in 1981, when Shimon Peres had to be whisked away from an election rally in Beit Shemesh where a fuming crowd of predominantly non-Ashkenazi locals pelted him with eggs and tomatoes. Instead, Israel today has a million "Russians" whose patience for Peretz's neo-Marxist rhetoric is no higher than Betar Jerusalem fans' is for his unreconstructed Osloism. Then there are the Middle Israelis, the native middle class that fights Israel's wars in the battlefield and finances its spendthrift budgets with its wallets, the Israelis who inhabit the world that lies between the disengagement plan and the anti-terror fence. To them, Peretz's economic demagoguery is about as soothing as a highway robber's vow to his victims that he will only use their money for good causes. Israel already has the developed world's second highest national budget (compared to its gross domestic product) and Peretz's promises to raise the minimum wage and generally please the have-nots by clobbering the haves - besides representing a formula that has been empirically, and catastrophically, tested elsewhere - are likely to make us the world's very leader in this dubious category. What the middle class wants, stubborn lot that they are, is not a bigger budget, but in fact a smaller one, one where they, the people, are richer, and the government, even one led by a financial whiz like the head of the Histadrut, is poorer. How, then, will Labor's salvation come? Simple: when it humbly assumes responsibility for the mistakes it made in going to Oslo, and when it strives to reconcile rather than drive wedges between the working and middle classes. Peretz has made it plain he will deliver neither of these. And so, his disproportionately celebrated electoral accomplishment of 2005 may prove even less significant than Peres's of 1944.