The Disappointing Trajectory of Amir Peretz

Ilan Pappe

In 1977 Menachem Begin, then head of the Likud, created a revolution and removed the Labour Party from power. Begin’s was a social revolution, based on promises of social change and on giving the working class, which the Labour Party had alienated, a sense of belonging. Begin carried out a social revolution, but used the ‘train ticket’ he received from the people to travel to the Occupied Territories. I would like to be the Menachem Begin of the Labour Party, to give it back its social values and the support of the people. If the people give me the same ‘train ticket’ they once gave Begin, I intend to travel with it towards peace.

Amir Peretz, interview with labourstart.org, November 2005

When you drive south from Tel Aviv towards the Negev, the landscape becomes progressively more arid, the human surroundings progressively more impoverished. There is some reasonable housing – isolated kibbutzim or other forms of collective settlement – and here and there a prosperous bit of suburbia; but mostly it is a depressing journey, not alleviated by the ‘development towns’, Israel’s answer to Ebenezer Howard’s ‘garden cities’: ugly, uniform buildings, five to ten storeys high, reminiscent of housing estates in the former Soviet bloc, put up in haste to accommodate the influx of Arab Jewish immigrants languishing in the Maabort, the unbearable transition camps which received them on their arrival in Israel. Some communities – the Iraqi Jews, for example – made it to more affluent areas, but the North Africans were not among the more fortunate and in the 1950s most of them settled in these towns.

Life in the region was and still is very difficult. The main problem is the local economy, which is wholly dependent on a very few factories: sweatshops connected to the food and textile industries, sometimes to the military complex. This is where Israel’s most underprivileged Jews work. Statistics for the mid-1990s show that half the local population earns the minimum wage, a third lives below the poverty line, and nearly 50 per cent of high-school leavers fail to matriculate. These were the people responsible for the Likud victory in 1977 and for the success of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party, in the 1990s.

Amir Peretz arrived in one such development town, Sderot, a few miles away from the Gaza Strip, as a young child from the town of Bojad in Morocco, where he was born Armand Peretz in 1952. Until 1983, when he was elected head of the local council, his story was fairly typical: he worked as an unskilled labourer in a nearby kibbutz, served in the army and was badly wounded in the 1973 war. Confined to a wheelchair for a time, he managed – with great difficulty – a farm in a nearby moshav, until he left the hard scrabble behind: first for university and then for politics. Most of his peers who chose politics as a way out of their predicament ended up in the Likud; he opted for Labour, and – what was extraordinary – Labour’s left wing.

He first came to public prominence in 1988, as a member of the Eight – a left-wing group within the Knesset, headed by Yossi Beilin, which advocated a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and a two-state solution. Peretz was a dream come true for the Ashkenazi-dominated Labour Party: to have within its highest ranks a ‘Moroccan’ who held such views was in those days almost unthinkable.

Since then, Peretz, like the other members of the Eight, has become more ‘pragmatic’ – as we say in Israel – in an attempt to shift Israel’s Zionist politics towards the centre. In the 1990s, he chose the trade union congress, the Histadrut, as his main political arena and route to the top. In 1995 he became its chairman and in that capacity did nothing to limit the organisation’s extensive involvement in the occupation: in areas directly or indirectly controlled by Israel, the Histadrut granted the settlers union rights while denying them to Palestinians; as for Palestinian workers in industrial plants within the border zones (areas inside the Palestinian Territories under direct Israeli control), it ignored their situation entirely despite their having no basic human or workers’ rights.

Like the other members of the Eight, Peretz has tempered his early support for a two-state solution, preferring the narrow Israeli interpretation of the Oslo Accords and, later, the Camp David summit and the Geneva programme. This means consenting to a Palestinian state in control of the Gaza Strip and those parts of the West Bank where Jews are not densely settled (thereby allowing Israel to annex Greater Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs). The solution also negates the Palestinian right of return and any significant Palestinian presence in Jerusalem; it doesn’t recognise the need to allow the Palestinians full sovereignty in economic, diplomatic and military affairs. It is a recipe for peace that even the fragile Arafat had to decline and one that is likely to be rejected by Abu Mazen.

Still, a cool-headed assessment of Peretz’s politics should not preclude the kind of hope that attended Yitzhak Rabin’s second term as prime minister, when he joined the peace camp, despite his previously brutal policies in the Occupied Territories. Peretz’s election as leader of the Labour Party on 10 November was certainly well received in neighbouring Arab countries, the Syrian government beating the others to be the first to welcome the new leader. But then Damascus is presently under such pressure that it may be a waste of time trying to assess how genuine this response is, or whether it was born of a real understanding of the Israeli political scene. It does, however, indicate what hopes attach to his election. Soon similarly positive noises were heard from other Arab capitals, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament.

Even if Peretz were to become prime minister, there is no overlooking the fact that his point of departure is the old Zionist programme. Unless we can be sure that the Palestinian struggle has come to an end, with the Palestinians conceding defeat, it is difficult to see how the posture he has adopted can produce results that differ in any way from those produced by previous similar initiatives.

But Peretz is unlikely to be the next prime minister of Israel. The polls predict that Ariel Sharon’s new venture, Kadima (‘Forward’), will have many more seats than Peretz’s Labour Party. The two could, and probably would, form a coalition government, if the centrist Shinui Party joined them and a few religious and several left-leaning and Palestinian groups gave them their tacit support. But no less likely is a scenario in which Sharon aligns himself with right-wing parties with whom he can agree on continuing a restricted evacuation of isolated settlements in the West Bank so as to keep Israel in the convenient position in which it now finds itself: prolonging an occupation that gets more oppressive by the day while pretending to be deeply engaged in a peace process. Peretz could be an asset in this context, but he isn’t essential to it.

In fact, the honeymoon may be over even sooner. In 2002 we were in a similar position. The Labour Party had elected Amram Mitzna as leader. He came from a different background: he was a German Jewish former general whom everyone had expected to hold peacenik views. But he ran and won on a platform similar to Peretz’s: a train ticket out of the territories. He was eaten alive by senior party members one year into the second intifada, before he could even test his ability to challenge Ariel Sharon. Peretz, who has the Histadrut behind him and is a much more experienced politician, is in a stronger position. There is a chance he may survive the onslaught that has already begun.

But will there be much of a Labour Party left to lead? It’s too early to say. Some of its senior members are likely to join Sharon’s party: Shimon Peres already has. Either way we shouldn’t lose sight of the main picture. Between the unlikely, best-case scenario – a left-wing government ready to implement the Geneva Accord – and a likely worst-case scenario, another Sharon government, there is not much difference from the Palestinians’ point of view. Or, indeed, from the point of view of anyone committed to peace and reconciliation in Israel and Palestine. I also doubt whether the people of Sderot have much ground for hope. Unemployment is rising, the factories have moved to Egypt and Jordan, the educational system is failing, and there is no protection from the Qassam missiles that Hamas in its wrath rains down on them. At best, Peretz will pepper his social and economic policies with welfare initiatives, or at least with a lot of politically correct jargon, while allowing the extreme free market economy to keep Sderot – along with many other Israelis, Palestinians and North African Jews – at the bottom of the local economy.

Israel needs a greater revolution than the election of Amir Peretz. The peace initiatives – or at any rate their short-term goals – have not changed since Israel occupied the territories in 1967. What is new is the growing realisation among grass-roots organisations worldwide, led by the hundreds of NGOs which now constitute Palestinian civil society, that previous methods to bring peace have failed. Diplomatic efforts have led nowhere and have inadvertently allowed the Israelis to widen the occupation and introduce even more oppressive and cruel mechanisms of control, intimidation and dispossession. Palestinian armed struggle has also failed to produce any tangible results and its victims are not only Israelis but large sections of Palestinian society. Only one option remains: strong international pressure, of the kind that was directed against apartheid South Africa in the form of sanctions, boycotts and disinvestments.

It is in illusionary moments like this – with Peretz portrayed as the bright new star – that committed people suddenly stop thinking, pinning their hopes once more on diplomacy and on the ability of Israeli Jewish society to provide the kind of change from within that might end the occupation. The illusion won’t last: all those Israelis who, at great risk to their lives, protest against the apartheid wall, who monitor the roadblocks, who refuse to serve in the army of occupation but instead do everything they can to help the Palestinians living under the yoke of occupation, need a change more significant than any Amir Peretz will bring. And so do the Palestinians, who have not only endured one of the longest and harshest occupations of modern times but have suffered false promises of liberation whenever a leader supposedly committed to peace has emerged in Israel only to show himself committed to Zionism in such a way as to preclude any meaningful chance of solving the conflict.

It is heartwarming to see a Moroccan Jew reach the higher echelons of power and commit himself to a ‘train ticket’ out of the territories. But Peretz’s mention of Menachem Begin is not accidental. The aim is not justice or peace, but to rid Israel of the Occupied Territories. If this is the goal there is no need for peace. In order to sustain a Jewish majority and Jewish supremacy, there is no need for a continuing military occupation of most of the territories – as even Ariel Sharon recognises – since these areas will be cordoned off behind Israeli fences and walls. To talk about replacing direct occupation with a form of life imprisonment is not, after all, to talk about peace, even if the person doing the talking is a genuine representative of the underprivileged class of Arab Jews.

Still, there may be something positive to come out of Peretz’s election. He is the unlikely product of an education system that failed to provide school leavers with a chance of holding their own in the Israeli economy while implanting in their minds the need to de-Arabise: to forget – indeed, to wrench themselves from – their Arab roots. They learned that the way to integrate yourself into Israeli Jewish society was to adopt strong anti-Arab and, more particularly, anti-Palestinian positions. This is why towns like Sderot were built near the unstable and quite often violent borders of Israel. It is easier to feel hatred or animosity when you live in constant danger of being shelled or attacked.

Amir Peretz has shown that you can make it from Sderot to the top by adopting leftist Zionist views. His prospective policies are not enough to change anything, but perhaps the next generation of Moroccan Jews will produce a leader capable of going one step further in liberating himself or herself from anti-Arab Orientalist ideologies of superiority – and, in so doing, influence the thinking of Israeli society as a whole. It ought to be possible for outlooks to change. After all, 99 per cent of the inhabitants of Sderot and places like it are not candidates for the premiership; nor are they likely to find jobs, proper housing or education, or peace of mind. They are victims of Zionism as much as the Palestinians are. Let us hope that a sense of shared victimhood will one day provide a joint leadership and a genuine road map or train ticket out of our misery here in Israel and in Palestine.

2 December