The election of Amir Peretz to the leadership of the Labor Party is a potentially revolutionary event, both for Israeli politics and for the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Peretz's rise to power is likely to have a stronger effect on the first sphere than on the second.
Within the context of Israeli domestic politics, Peretz represents the ascension of Eastern Jewry (Jews originating in Muslim lands) from the grassroots to the leadership level of the secular majority. If Peretz succeeds, an Eastern Jew such as Silvan Shalom or Shaul Mofaz (rather than Binyamin Netanyahu) could well succeed Ariel Sharon as head of the Likud. Peretz also represents a very different socio-economic approach than that prevalent in recent years: he is a social democrat whose first concern is the lower working class strata and the alarming gap in Israel between haves and have-nots.
Peretz is not the first Eastern Jew to head Labor; he was preceded for a short term by Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer. But the latter is a retired general, like so many of Israel's leading politicians. Here Peretz, a former development town mayor and accomplished labor union leader, also represents a unique departure in mainstream Israeli politics.
Peretz still has to persuade a lot of reluctant people on the economic periphery to vote for Labor: development town Eastern Jews whose support for Likud and disgust with Labor has in recent decades taken on the aura of a "tribal" ritual; Russian immigrants and impoverished Ashkenazi retirees who may not trust a North African Jew; and other traditional right wing or Shas (Sephardic ultra-orthodox) supporters who like Peretz's economic ideas but shudder at his dovish approach to the Palestinian issue. All the while, he has to hold onto Labor's traditional well-heeled, mainstream Ashkenazi voters.
Here we confront Peretz's rather unique attempt to synthesize and integrate his domestic policies with his peace policies. He argues that economic impoverishment and hawkishness on peace issues are one and the same issue: that the anti-peace camp is spending money on settlements at the expense of jobs and development; that hostility toward Palestinians is the opium the right wing throws the masses to keep them quiet.
All this is unique and fascinating. But Peretz still has to "get elected", i.e., to lead Labor to major electoral gains, in order to solidify his new leadership position on the left. If he fails, as Amram Mitzna did three years ago with a similarly dovish Palestinian policy, his rivals for leadership within Labor will throw him out ruthlessly. (Note the irony: the frustrated Mitzna just resigned from the Knesset to devote himself to running a down-and-out Negev development town, Yerucham; Peretz began his career as mayor of Sderot, another such town.)
Assuming Peretz succeeds electorally, and with Sharon splitting the Likud, it is possible but far from certain that Labor will get the most votes and form the next government. One way or another, if Labor is in the governing coalition it will likely share rule with at least one center or center-right party that has more conservative ideas about dealing with the Palestinian issue than Peretz's plan to enter immediately into negotiations regarding a final status agreement.
But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Peretz is Israel's next prime minister and that he has a free hand to negotiate, we have to ask whether a final status agreement is possible at this juncture. Can Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas make the concessions regarding the right of return and Jerusalem that even Peretz will insist on? How do we factor in the influence of Hamas on Palestinian peacemaking, once it is enfranchised, represented in the Legislative Council and a part of the PLO, let alone the possible effect of ongoing terrorist violence sponsored by "spoilers" in Iran and Syria? Amir Peretz is an energetic and charismatic leader, but is he tough enough to dismantle dozens of West Bank settlements and remove tens of thousands of settlers in order to make good on his peace commitments?
This is not an election appeal for Ariel Sharon. But to the extent that Sharon represents a more gradual approach, spearheaded by unilateral Israeli measures or reasonable interim agreements (and it is questionable whether this indeed is Sharon's approach) and managed by a very tough leader, it is worth considering whether, under current conditions, this does not offer better prospects for progress than a dash for a dramatic peace breakthrough.
For Amir Peretz to try and fail to make peace with the Palestinians could be less helpful to long-term peace prospects than another successful round of disengagement.- Published 21/11/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and was a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The return of an Israeli opposition
by Ghassan Khatib
The dramatic defeat of Shimon Peres and election of Amir Peretz as Israeli Labor leader, has spurred debate about the possibility of change on the internal Israeli political scene and its potential effect on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Since the change on the Palestinian side--the absence of Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas--many have been looking for a change in Israel to match the Palestinian leadership's enthusiasm for renewing negotiations toward a political solution.
Ariel Sharon follows an ideology and politics that is incompatible with a peace based on international legality, and the greater his strength the less are the reasons for optimism that the ongoing violence and unilateralism can be replaced with bilateral peaceful political negotiations. One of the characteristics of internal Israeli politics in the last three to four years has been the absence of any real opposition, thus leaving the right wing unaccountable.
The victory for Peretz has two interesting consequences. One is the near guarantee that Israel is going to move back to a two-party system after almost becoming a one-party state. In other words, the government is going to be faced with opposition. Furthermore, that opposition may not just be a rejuvenated Labor party under young and enthusiastic leadership: such a party might well be able to gather other forces around it clamoring for change, whether political, ideological or social. This has already led to the second consequence, a change in the composition of the Israeli government and early elections.
Recent Palestinian success in reducing violence, the obvious Palestinian desire to replace confrontations with negotiations, international recognition of Abbas as a partner for peace and the deep and extensive process of Palestinian democratization through the long season of elections have all exposed the unilateral practices of the current Israeli government for what they are. An Israeli opposition with a credible peace program might just be able to gain support both internally and internationally. This has created some excitement, in Israel and Palestine as well as in international circles, that we may soon see the end of the current political stagnation.
It has been extremely frustrating in the past few years, especially this last year, not to see any significant signs of life from the peace camp in Israel. Among the different reasons, one can specify the combination of a strong right wing government faced with a weak, even absent political opposition. The reemergence of the Labor party as a viable opposition force might revive the fortunes of the Israeli peace camp, which has traditionally played a significant role in raising awareness in Israel and in creating bridges through dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on governmental, semi-governmental and non-governmental levels.
The Palestinian side, which has rightly tried to keep its distance from internal Israeli politics, is watching developments carefully in the hope that they will lead to an end to the Israeli unilateral strategy--and unilateral practices establishing facts on the ground such as the ever-continuing and illegal settlement expansion program so hazardous to the two-state solution--and its replacement by bilateral peace negotiations.
The international community is also watching with interest to see if the coming Palestinian elections in January and early Israeli elections in March will create respective internal situations more conducive to peace.- Published 21/11/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Peretz comes from the Arab world
an interview with Arie Lova Eliav
bitterlemons: You left the Labor Party years ago over differences with PM Golda Meir regarding the Palestinian issue. Does Amir Peretz, to whom you are a close adviser and a kind of mentor, have a new and different message for the Arab world than Labor's traditional approach?
Eliav: First of all, Peretz comes from the Arab world, he was born there. He doesn't make an issue of it, but it's part of his culture. This gives him an advantage: he's from the Middle East. At the same time he's very forward looking, modern. The Arab world must have an inbred sympathy toward a man like him. As a prime minister, he will be in the same age range as modern Arab rulers like the kings of Jordan and Morocco.
When I first met him 20 years ago he was mayor of Sderot, which is very close to Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. Before the first intifada he had excellent relations with the mayor and people there and planned joint industrial and agricultural ventures.
bitterlemons: How does Peretz plan to deal with the Palestinian issue? With Syria?
Eliav: He favors direct negotiations with the Palestinians, two states for two peoples, and borders based on the 1967 lines with agreed adjustments. As for the right of return, I assume it will not be on his agenda. He himself is a Jewish refugee; the solution for Arab refugees will be a sovereign Palestinian state.
As for Syria, I hope he follows in the footsteps of the late Yitzhak Rabin, willing to negotiate return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
bitterlemons: Do you envisage circumstances in which Peretz would support an additional phase of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank?
Eliav: That depends what happens on the Palestinian side. If Peretz wins the election he'll have public opinion behind him to go into direct negotiations and seek an agreement on a long-term peace treaty. But if he has very strong opposition from the right, if terror continues unabated and if the Palestinian partner is very weak, I think the way for him will be to continue unilateral disengagement, though he doesn't like it and prefers high level negotiations.
Apropos terror, if, God forbid, the terrorist organizations attack during the election campaign in the next three months this will cause havoc to Amir Peretz and his campaign. If the terrorists want an extreme right wing parliament in Israel, the way to do it is to carry out acts of terror inside Israel.
bitterlemons: If Peretz does not win the elections, will he join a coalition under Prime Minister Sharon?
Eliav: Well, I hope he'll come first in the elections; I think he'll carry big chunks of former Likud voters and be prime minister. So I reverse the question: will Peretz bring Sharon's party into his government?
bitterlemons: Apropos winning over large numbers of Likud voters, many of them tend to be Eastern Jews from the lower socio-economic strata like Peretz himself.
Eliav: Peretz is breaking this taboo and this stigma that if you are poor in Israel you vote right wing. He comes from poverty, and knows what it is to be poor. I think as a man of peace he can win over the second generation of Jews from Arab countries. He will tell them that it is the right wing and its views that made them poor during the past 20 years of Likud rule.- Published 21/11/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Arie Lova Eliav was general secretary of the Labor Party in the early 1970s, and was one of the first Israeli public figures who met with the PLO.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A new and hopeful change
an interview with Shaher Saed
bitterlemons: Is Amir Peretz's election as Israeli Labor party leader a cause for optimism for Palestinians?
Saed: I believe Amir Peretz will work hard for the peace process. I've known Amir for many years, and in all our discussions he always voiced his belief in a two-state solution. Every time we discussed the Palestinian issue, he showed good understanding of the Palestinian situation and the needs of Palestinian workers.
The last time we met was in Brussels at the International Conference for International Trade Unions, and he told me how important Palestinian labor was for Israel. He understands our situation and he understands and supports people-to-people work to resolve Palestinian-Israeli problems. I believe he will open contacts with the PA and will work hard to make progress on the peace process.
bitterlemons: Will Peretz's background as a union leader bring a new approach to the conflict?
Saed: I think he understands the labor issue very well and he understands that when we have agreements between Israelis and Palestinians they benefit workers in both places. Unlike former Israeli leaders, he understands the importance of people-to-people contacts and how such contacts are enhanced through labor.
Some people are fearful that Peretz will change if he becomes prime minister, but my reading of him is that he will work very hard for peace.
bitterlemons: Why are you so optimistic?
Saed: Peretz used to be mayor of Sderot, near the border with Gaza. He had good relations with many people in Gaza, and he visited there many times. He understands the Palestinian people and has told me several times of his desire to put an end to the conflict, by giving Palestinians their rights in a state alongside Israel.
bitterlemons: What makes him different from other Labor party leaders?
Saed: This is the first time the Labor party elects a leader with a civilian background, who has worked closely with the people and the workers. The ex-leaders of the Labor party come either from the army or have a significant security background. I think Peretz is more open to a civilian approach to the conflict rather than a security approach.
He understands, for example, that among the workers of the world, the Palestinian workers suffer from one of the highest levels of poverty, and he understands that this is an issue that must be addressed.
bitterlemons: Do you think Peretz's Moroccan roots will be a significant factor?
Saed: No. This is sometimes mentioned, but this is an Israeli issue. For Palestinians, we don't see this as an east-west issue. Palestinians are looking for an Israeli leader who will seriously pursue the peace process.
bitterlemons: What chance does Peretz have of becoming prime minister?
Saed: I think because he has worked so hard as head of Histadrut for the rights of Israeli workers, on issues such as minimum wage and social security, he could stand a good chance of winning an election. I believe his argument with Benyamin Netanyahu over the labor issue will stand him in good stead.
I also hope he will become prime minister, because I think he will look for a solution to the Palestinian issue, and continue what Rabin began. More than any other Israeli leader, he will seriously pursue the peace process.- Published 21/11/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Shaher Saed is the secretary general of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions.
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