|A friend of mine who’s been working for 25 years on a shop floor in an Israeli factory summed up the historic signficance of Amir Peretz’s rise to power in the Labor Party. It doesn’t really matter all that much what happens in the general elections, he told me. By raising the issues of poverty and social injustice, by compelling all politicians — including Sharon — to address those issues, Amir Peretz has aleady won.
A generation ago, Israel was known as a country where social class barely existed. The first person I knew who visited the country back in 1971 came back elated. “There is no bourgeoisie in Israel,” he told me. It was a slight exaggeration — but only a slight one. The much poorer Israel of the 1970s did indeed have social classes — and the social injustice of that time gave rise to a movement of young Sephardic Jews known as the “Black Panthers”. But compared to the Israel of today, the Jewish state of 30 years ago was a workers’ paradise.
Israel has gone from being one of the world’s more just and fair societies to one of the least. The rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer, on a scale unmatched in other countries.
There are reasons for this which Israel shares with other countries — such as globalization and the worldwide race to the bottom as countries try to compete with one another, driving down wages and reducing the size of government. But there are also uniquely Israeli reasons and these have to do with the fact that despite appearing to be one of the most politically alive countries in the world, Israel in fact has had no politics in the sense that we understand politics in the advanced industrial world.
In its simplest, crudest sense, politics is an expression of the struggle between social classes. There was a time when Americans would have laughed off that idea as a silly Marxist slogan. Today under Bush, it is clear to many people just how right Marx was on this point at least. In most countries, there are parties of the left and the right, parties expressing the economic interests of this or that social class.
In Britain, where I live, you can still mostly predict how someone will vote in an election based on how much money they earn, or what type of house they live in, or whether or not they are members of a trade union. In other European countries, the distinction is even sharper.
But Israel has never had, at least not in the last generation, this kind of class politics. Israelis would vote for political parties based on their views regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. Those who believed that compromise with the Palestinians was possible considered themselves to be “doves”. Those who were more skeptical became “hawks”. Doves and hawks — not left and right.
And the lines dividing them had little to do with social class. For example, a number of the wealthiest businessmen in the country found themselves supporting progress on the peace process — and were thereby aligned with socialists and communists. Meanwhile, many of Israel’s poor became, for a wide range of reasons, supporters of the extreme right.
Class politics, if it ever existed in Israel, virtually came to an end following the 1967 war, once the national debate began to focus solely on the question of how, and if, to resolve the dispute with the country’s Arab neighbors.
And one result of this has been that every time Palestinian terrorists go out on one of their murderous sprees, thousands of poor Israelis cast their votes for politicians like Netanyahu who represent the interests of the very rich.
This is the crazy reality of Israeli politics. The security situation motivates tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Israeli voters to vote against their own economic interests and to back leaders and parties like Netanyahu and the Likud which, once in power, drive down their standards of living and widen the social gap.
There are some parallels with American politics. In his brilliant book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” Thomas Frank describes how right-wing Republicans have been able to do much the same with some working class and poor Americans. In the US, issues like abortion and gay marriage are used by right-wing politicians to coax people to vote against their own interests. Sometimes this works. But in Israel, this has been the dominant theme of politics for nearly four decades.
And now we come to the rise of Amir Peretz.
Amir Peretz represents that rare bird in Israeli politics — a man who actually believes in, and practices, class politics. Amir belongs to that generation of Moroccan immigrants who threw their support behind Menachem Begin and brought the Likud to power in 1977. Most of those immigrants and their children, who suffered from poverty and inequality under the various Labor Party governments, had been backing parties which once in power began to tear down the welfare state, weaken the unions and increase poverty.
But not Amir. He joined the Labor Party, and was elected mayor of Sderot, a dusty development town just over the border from Gaza. Development towns are the kinds of places where politicians like David Levy, who spent most of his life in the Likud, grew up. They are the kinds of places where politicians like Shimon Peres would get heckled on a good day, and physically attacked on a bad one. People in those towns are notorious for gathering in small crowds and shouting “Death to Arabs” following a terrorist attack.
But not Amir. He helped found “Peace Now” and he blamed excessive government spending on West Bank and Gaza settlements for the poverty in Sderot and elsewhere. When he saw crime and violence on the rise in his town and throughout Israeli society, he blamed the occupation for corroding the moral fiber of the country.
You couldn’t be more off-message than that. And he continued doing things that no once else even dreamed of doing.
A decade ago, when he and Haim Ramon decided to challenge the Labor Party’s 70-year-long dominance of the Histadrut trade union federation, no expected them to win. But they did win, and within a year or two, that federation had lost hundreds of thousands of its members as Ramon broke the link between health care and union membership. Once he’d done that, Ramon moved on and left Peretz in control of the broken, hollow shell that was once one of the world’s great trade union movements.
What happened next was pretty amazing. Amir Peretz treated the Histadrut like it was a trade union. For decades the Histadrut had been much more than a union — it owned a big slice of the Israeli economy, it provided health care, it published books and newspapers, it had its own soccer teams, it ran a youth movement, and so on. It had a trade union “department”, which looking back seems a bit odd. How many unions in the world needed a specific department to do the union stuff?
Amir thought that the role of the Histadrut should be to protect the weak, to resist attempts to roll back wages and pensions, and so on. Anywhere else in the world and that is the normal bread-and-butter work of trade unionists. But not in Israel, where the unions were busy doing everything but trade union work.
Amir turned that all around, began to show up at strikes with a megaphone and a message. At first journalists were confused. I recall one long profile of him in an Israeli paper entitled “The last social democrat”.
Well, maybe not the very last. After all, his little political party grew in strength from election to election, and when he merged it back into the Labor Party last year, he returned to the fold from a position of strength.
And still, they underestimated him. He was Israel’s last social democrat. He spoke about social class while everyone else was focussed on all the million issues that divide Israeli politicans — the gap between religious and secular Jews, and the conflict with the Palestinians. He was out of tune, out of touch, and of course in the Knesset elections, with his own little party, he hadn’t done very well, had he?
The polls early in 2005 reflected this. When Amir was one of the initial 8 or 9 candidates for the leadership of the Labor Party, some polls placed him last. None expected that he could win.
He was talking about issues like the rise of poverty, the criminally low minimum wage, the lack of a proper pension, the special suffering of Israel’s Arab minority and new immigrants — issues that are not traditional vote-getters. And the audiences that might have shown an interest in those issues were, like Amir himself, Moroccans in development towns, the kind of people that used to follow David Levy in the Likud.
In the Labor Party, with its kibbutzniks and dovish intellectuals and its liberal businessmen, Amir could not be considered a serious candidate.
But then something strange happened.
All the candidates for leadership of the Labor Party began recruiting supporters to sign up for the party in time to vote in a scheduled primary last spring. Every candidate worked hard to bring in as many new members as they could, and the ranks of the party swelled. But no one worked as hard as Amir Peretz, a man who knows working people across the country, who has access to neighborhood and factories and workshops that no other Labor politician even knows exists.
Thousands of new members were recruited by Amir and his supporters, and polls began to show something odd. By June, Peretz was running only a few points behind Shimon Peres — and far ahead of all the usual gang of retired generals. Peretz’s opponents began to scream about fraud, borrowing a page from the traditional Likud textbook, accusing the trade unions of being heavy-handed and corrupt and so on. The party leadership panicked, and decided to postpone those primary elections while they sorted out whether or not Amir had bullied or coerced people into joining the party.
That postponement of the primary elections, the long delay while party officials checked for any signs of corruption in the recruitment of new members, led journalists to once again write off Peretz. He was a storm in a teacup, and his time had passed. By mid-October 2005, Ha’aretz had already written him off, and talked about “despair” in the Peretz camp. They did, however, note one unusual fact: Amir Peretz himself was not despairing. Amir still seem convinced that somehow, despite polls which showed a huge lead for Shimon Peres, that he would win.
That is why when Amir Peretz defeated Shimon Peres in the November Labor Party primary the only person in the country who was not suprised was Amir himself. Because he understood something which most pundits had completely missed — for the time time in a generation, Israelis were participating in something other countries have long known about: politics.
Israel was discovering what class politics was all about. On the day of the primary, in the high-unemployment towns where the Likud traditionally did so well, such as Afula and Be’er Sheva, Peretz was racking up victories. Peres did well in the posh suburbs of Tel-Aviv, such as Kfar Saba. Poor and working class members of the Labor Party were backing the union leader.
And when he won, the whole town of Sderot — both Labor party supporters and Likudniks — cheered his victory. It was their victory.
Elections are now scheduled for the spring of 2006. Between now and then, many things will change. Parties will dissolve and merge, arise and disappear. Any article written today will be out of date by tomorrow morning. And yet certain things now seem likely, and at the risk of seeming a fool on the day after the election, here are four of more probable developments:
1. The Likud is finished. The party founded by Menachem Begin to unite poor Sephardic workers with rich businessmen on an anti-Arab platform has lost its electoral base. As those Moroccans from Sderot and Beit Shean and Afula who used to vote for David Levy now move over to Peretz, Begin’s party will shrink to include only the far-right fanatics who reject any peace process and who support Thatcherite economics. The Likud is now a fringe party.
2. Sharon’s new party is a bubble. These parties always are. They always do extremely well in the first days and weeks that they exist as the media gives them attention. But they have no base of activists, no organization, and come election day, they produce — always — disappointing results. Sharon knows this, of course. He broke from the Likud not because he thought he could do really well by forming a new center party, but because he had no choice. Since his decision to withdraw from Gaza, he was no longer been a Likudnik anyway, and left the party before they threw him out.
3. Like the Likud, I believe that Meretz too is finished. What distinguished it from Labor when it was founded a decade ago are all the things that Amir Peretz represents — which is why polls show it losing much of is support to Peretz already. You could argue that Peretz is the ultimate Mapamnik, representing that tradition within Meretz of dovishness and socialist, class politics. As I understand it, Meretz leaders are currently divided about what to do. But in the end, it won’t matter what they decide. Voters will decide if Israel needs a party to the left of Labor — something which right now seems unlikely.
4. Peretz and Labor will continue to rise, just as Peretz has been rising for the last six years. Sharon and his government stink of corruption. The Likud is a rump. The smaller parties such as Shas and Shinui are in terminal decline. Peretz is the only national leader who is not under threat of indictment or at the end of his career. Within days of his victory in the Labor primary, polls showed Peretz taking the party up from 21 Knesset seats (out of 120) to 28 — a gain of 33%. Imagine what will happen once he starts campaigning. Labor will certainly grow in strength. But can it win?
In an ideal world, all the poor and working class people of Israel, all those who want to see an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, would rally around Amir Peretz and the Labor Party. Labour would get 80 or 90 seats in the Knesset. But that isn’t going to happen.
Israelis will continue to vote in their thousands against their own class interests, and many will vote according to their ethnicity, or as their rabbi tells them to.
Still, the numbers are promising. If only one in ten of those who now say they will back Sharon’s new party were to change their minds and vote for Labor, Peretz will be the next prime minister. Of course he will need to put together a coalition with other parties, and one of those parties might well be Sharon’s. In which case, a likely scenario is a government lead by Peretz, with Sharon as high-ranking minister.
Or something entirely different might happen. But let’s not forget the most important thing. A day or two after Peretz won the Labor primary, Sharon announced his plan for a “war on poverty”. And when he resigned from his leadership of Likud, his aspiring successors lined up one by one to announce their own social agendas, their own commitments to closing the social gap and ending poverty in the country.
Suddenly, everyone in Israel is a “social democrat”.
And in that sense, regardless of what happens next, as my friend on the factory floor has said — Amir Peretz has already won.