- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

In the celebrity-oriented era we live in, it should come as no surprise that the mainstream media seems to be fixated on Saturday’s appearance of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton at ceremonies paying tribute to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 10 years ago this month. As fascinating as the joint public appearance of the Clintons on stage in Tel Aviv may be to some, there’s a far more important political story unfolding right now in Israel: veteran Israeli union leader Amir Peretz’s stunning upset victory last week over Shimon Peres in the Labor Party leadership primary, which has set the stage for early elections in Israel and a possible remaking of the Israeli political map.

Mr. Peretz, who has been sharply critical of Mr. Peres’ decision to remain as junior partner in a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says he will withdraw Labor from the government this week. Ideologically speaking, the victory of Mr. Peretz appears to be roughly analogous to George McGovern or Howard Dean winning control of the Democratic Party — in other words, tantamount to political disaster. But Mr. Peretz has two major things going for him: first, the fact that Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party owes its ascendancy during the past 30 years to its success in winning votes from Israel’s Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jewish communities, who have felt themselves discriminated against by more secular-oriented Middle Eastern elites associated with the Labor Party. Labor’s biggest hope is that by selecting Mr. Peretz, a native of Morocco, as its leader, it can overcome Likud’s “lock” on these voters. Second, it hopes to be able to capitalize on discord within Likud (e.g., the backlash against Mr. Sharon’s Gaza disengagement policy) to return Labor and the left to power.

When he started his campaign for the Labor Party leadership post in January, Mr. Peretz, whose support in the polls lagged below 5 percent, was given little chance of defeating Mr. Peres, 82, a former prime minister and foreign minister of the country and a presence in Israeli government and politics for half a century. Mr. Peretz, 53, rose through union ranks to become the head of Histadrut, Israel’s giant trade-union federation. During this year’s Labor Party leadership campaign, he signed up thousands of new Labor Party members, and, with the help of supporters in the nation’s high-tech community, set up a remarkably well-organized get-out-the-vote campaign, and took advantage of overconfidence on the part of Peres supporters. In the end, Mr. Peretz won slightly over 42 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Mr. Peres.

During the past 20 years, Mr. Peretz has positioned himself on the left-wing edge of Israeli politics — an advocate of socialism and the most dovish approaches to the peace process. He was on record in the mid-1980s in support of a Palestinian state — at a time when virtually no one on Israel’s political left or right dared to advocate such policies. He has also appeared to suggest that Arabs (possibly including opponents of Zionism) might be invited to join the Cabinet. In this year’s campaign, he denounced government cuts in social spending (a policy championed by former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most Reaganite member of the Sharon government on economic matters) and gaps between the rich and the poor.

In selecting an arch-dove like Mr. Peretz, Labor Party voters are bucking a recent trend in Israeli politics: Since former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s failed effort to make peace with the Palestinians in July 2000 and the outbreak of the terror war against Israel two months later, the Labor Party has been in a political free fall — going from Israel’s dominant political party to an emasculated number two. Israelis have lost confidence in Labor’s approach to the peace process; as Joel Himelfarb argues on the facing page, a major reason why Labor has lost so much political ground during the past four and a half years is that Mr. Sharon has succeeded in restoring much of Israel’s deterrent capability against terrorism.

But Mr. Sharon’s disengagement policies have also divided Likud and created a veritable civil war on the political right. The prime minister is reported to be considering abandoning the Likud in favor of creating a new “centrist” party.

A poll published over the weekend in the newspaper Ha’aretz found that support for Labor has increased since Mr. Peretz’s victory. According to the poll, if Mr. Sharon decides to bolt Likud and form a new party, he would win 32 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament, Labor with Mr. Peretz would win 27, and a Likud led by Mr. Netanyahu would win 25. Elections could take place as early as February, and it is anyone’s guess what the political map will look like.

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