When Ehud Barak ran for prime minister, he got up in public and apologized in the name of the Labor Party for generations of discrimination against the "Mizrahim," the Jews who immigrated from Arab countries. Many felt it was condescending and uncalled for.
Amir Peretz is not apologizing to anyone. He doesn't feel like an underdog, and he has never waved the banner of ethnic prejudice at any time in his political career.
When he was mayor of Sderot, people called him the Berl Katznelson of Morocco, but he didn't give a hoot. A 30-year old political animal and bundle of energy, his answer was to turn Sderot into the pearl of the South. He gave the town a face-lift. He invested in sanitation and education. He fought poverty before it was in style. He supported the establishment of a Palestinian state before Oslo was born.
Those who know Peretz heap praise on his sterling qualities, but they also portray him as a politico of the old Mapai school. One of the things that got him going was the surfeit of generals in government. They are an elitist clique, he charged. They think they own the place. He preached that it was time for a "people's general." He was a pro at infusing not only Labor but also the entire political system with rebelliousness and combative spirit.
As of now, the person who has lost the most from Peretz's victory is a Likud hotshot by the name of Netanyahu. With his pro-capitalist doctrines, he doesn't stand a chance against Peretz, "guardian of the poor." Many Likud voters will race to join a Labor Party headed by Peretz. Inadvertently, he has also ruined things for Barak, whose brilliant and cunning strategy was to get into power by embracing Peres.
What Peretz brings to Labor is not better management but hunger for victory. He is supplying his party with something it lost long ago - a burning desire to topple the government and seize the reins. Labor, as we all know, joined the government temporarily, to provide backing for the disengagement plan. Since then, it has been glued to its seat. Labor ministers have been handed an assortment of jobs and their presence in the government is hardly felt. While the extremists and rebels of the Likud kick up a god-awful fuss, Labor has furnished Sharon with some of the most docile politicians he's ever known.
Amir Peretz reminds me of the guy in the Mifal Hapayis commercial who jumps up and down on his bed, overjoyed at winning the lottery but setting off a humongous traffic jam.
Older politicians, who don't know what to make of him yet, say he talks too much and gets too excited. That could alienate his colleagues, who have welcomed him as enthusiastically as they would a spoonful of castor oil. He might also say the wrong thing.
But the truth is, Peretz's almost childlike exuberance is a breath of fresh air for his party. Up until now, he has not said anything wrong. And while he is known as quite an opponent-basher, he has announced to one and all, opponents included, that there is room for everyone.
In the little he has said so far regarding his platform, he did mention the minimum wage, of course. But he hasn't denounced any big-buck capitalists. That's already a hint that he knows the prime minister is no labor federation boss. At the Rabin memorial, he astonished many people with his pledge to adopt the Oslo Accords lock, stock and barrel as his blueprint for peace.
Peretz's first goal is to quit the government and establish a fighting opposition to the Likud. It will take a good few months to get the party in order and win the backing of the party institutions. Peretz may be a fighter from birth, but he will have to prove that he was not just to opposition born.
Amir Peretz is not Amram Mitzna, says one of his buddies. He's an old fox, with plenty of experience under his belt. Leave it to him. He'll know how to juggle social issues with integration in global economic trends.
The current government has done all it can do. By Saturday we will know if we are looking at early elections and if Labor has come back from the dead, to fight and win under Peretz's leadership. The time is ripe for a profound domestic revolution.
More justice, more equality, more ingenuity in the pursuit of peace - in these three spheres, the "king of the masses" has already added some spice to our lives.
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