What we've hungered for

Apart from his sterling platform, the thing I admire most about Peretz is his wardrobe.

peretz 88 (photo credit: )
peretz 88
(photo credit: )
Maybe you're the miracle cure for the chronically ailing body politic. At the very least you bring a fresh breeze of change into the seamy political arena. Already you have thrown public affairs into a tizzy, heralding tectonic changes in the structure of party politics. You don't fit into standard stereotypes of potential prime-ministerial material, being a brash battler for the proletariat, and non-Ashkenazi from a backwater development town to boot. Stunned Labor politicos don't know how to swallow the outsider becoming their top insider and the other parties are running scared. "Sources close to the prime minister" have embarked on a smear campaign directed at the newly elected Labor Party chairman. Binyamin Netanyahu agrees, for once, with the PM: "Peretz is a danger to the state." What better endorsement could a social democrat wish for than this one from a hard-core champion of the Reagan/Thatcher school of social welfare? Your main agenda is social justice and this is where the nation needs you the most. The greatest threat facing the country is runaway capitalism. As defender of the underdog you speak directly to the majority of the population who benefit little from the Likud's worship of growth economy at all costs. An economy undoubtedly needs to grow, but if this growth only benefits the few upper percentiles and neglects the mass of the population who actually fuel the growth, then the priorities need to be changed as Peretz promises. Perhaps Peretz may adopt a move to pre-'67 mores. On the territories, he has declared that the occupation is corrupting. A return to pre-'67 West Bank borders with some territorial adjustment to include the settlement blocs could well be on his platform - even Ariel Sharon seems to be moving in that direction. Peretz has long demanded that the resources being poured into the West Bank settlements be directed to the Negev, Galilee and development towns. THE MOST important return to a pre-'67 situation would be a return to the social gap of the early Sixties. Then Israel maintained one of the narrowest social gaps in the Western world. Now the local social chasm beats even Mammon-worshiping lands such as Switzerland and the US. Part of the problem is the minimum wage, which scrapes NIS 20 an hour, while the managers employing these peons can get NIS 20 a minute. Peretz has promised to raise the wage. This pledge drives capitalists' blood pressures off the charts, but it was endorsed this week by another social democrat, Bill Clinton, who said raising the minimum wage had helped the US economy. Peretz has also vowed to end the brutal exploitation of unprotected workers by manpower companies. This brings us to education, which used to be the pride of Israeli society. In the more egalitarian past kids were guaranteed a decent education. Now parents pay through the nose for a semblance of schooling. Israel won't maintain its technological edge by providing substandard education. There is no secret short-range formula. You have to pour money into education now to reap the benefits in the next generation. The payoff comes in the form of a well-educated, efficient, productive and contented workforce, which is Peretz's goal. Most political discourse focuses on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fortunately for Peretz, he steps into the arena after Sharon has laid to rest the Greater Land of Israel chimera. Following the relatively easy accomplishment of disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria settlements, the "only" remaining problem with the Palestinians (apart from the suppression of terror) is the extent of the withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank (and east Jerusalem). Peretz, the dove, who describes himself as a disciple of Yitzhak Rabin, would certainly endeavor to negotiate directly and seriously with the Palestinians in order to terminate the conflict. He is a conciliator and has already extended a hand of friendship to the most neglected sector of society - Israeli Arabs - promising that he would not rule out Arab parties from joining a potential government coalition. This is the first time the head of a Zionist party has entertained such a possibility. Apart from his sterling public affairs platform, the thing I admire most about Peretz is his wardrobe - another reminder of the more egalitarian pre-'67 worldview. Jackets and ties are simply not suitable for Middle East weather most of the year. I blame Menachem Begin for transplanting the manners and dress code of Polish gentry to this sultry clime. He was always immaculately buttoned up in suit and tie and indulged in lots of bowing and scraping and hand kissing. He introduced the red carpet, fanfare and line of dignitaries for every exit and reentry of the PM on state visits abroad. Before they were banned, Knesset members used to show up to sessions dressed in open-necked shirts and sandals. They were certainly no more corrupt and less conscientious than present MKs. Peretz has more than a stunning mustache in common with Lech Walesa, who emerged from obscurity as a workers' leader to carry the Poles from totalitarianism to democracy. We indeed already have a very vibrant democracy. But it's been mired in corruption and complacency and needs a Herculean effort to clean it up. Maybe Peretz is equal to the task. The writer is a former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.