Amir Peretz is one of the best things that has happened to Israeli politics. Young, Moroccan, sharp of mind and sharp of tongue, and most of all, full of self-confidence. Even those who are not fans of his socio-economic views will find it hard not to admire how passionately he embraces them. Shimon Peres' defeat by someone from outside the tribe has been a great political catalyst and done wonders for the political metabolism.
Ariel Sharon quit the Likud, established his own center party, and made a dream come true. He made it possible for outsiders to roll up their pants and wade into the cold waters of the political system. Even more importantly, he whet the sluggish appetite of the Labor party and revived its old craving to lead the country.
In the early surveys, Labor chalked up impressive gains in its bid to return to power. A forecast of 28 Knesset seats in the first public opinion poll was enough to make Peretz's head swim. But 10 days after this triumph, Kadima came into the world, and the government voted to push up the date of the election. That's when things went wrong. The polls predicted a landslide victory for Kadima, and the Labor party led by Peretz began to lose altitude. Haim Ramon, Dalia Itzik, Shimon Peres, political newcomers and sane Likudniks gravitated toward Kadima. An emergency government for peace and security loomed in the air.
At this stage, Peretz's poll curve started moving downward - in drips and drabs at first. Not enough to worry Peretz, who was still full of himself and his victory. Last week he was sure he had scored a personal record after reading in the paper that 72 percent of the public believed he would make a good prime minister. The next day, it turned out to be a mistake. A correction hurriedly published in some remote corner of the paper said that the opposite was true: 72 percent of the public believed Peretz would not make a good prime minister. The higher you go, the lower you fall.
Anyone with half a brain can see that Sharon is Israel's Father Geppetto. As the media droned on and on about his stroke, the hole in his heart and his obesity, the public's support and dependence on him only grew. Secret polls measuring the popularity of the Labor party under Peretz showed it dropping to about 16 seats. Sharon's strategic advisers knew the facts, but chose not to make them public - at least not until after the critical period when it was still possible to form a government of 61 seats and call off the elections.
As for what happened, or is happening, to Peretz, a.k.a the Meteor, there are several possible answers. Mainly, he's lost his momentum. Or as one kind-hearted political observer put it, he's made every mistake in the book. It was a mistake to push Peres away; it was a mistake not to promise Ehud Barak second place; and it was mistake to attack Sharon when the public was in ecstasy over the establishment of a centrist party whose primary objective is a peace accord.
Peretz has erred in not separating himself from his decades as a trade unionist. Not that poverty and the social agenda don't require serious attention, but the main concern of most Israelis today is the need for a political solution that will put an end to the Qassams and terror before the whole region is dragged into all-out war.
Once we're out of the territories, investors from all over will head for this part of the world. That in itself will create jobs and diminish poverty. When Peretz, as head of the opposition, was invited to the prime minister's office, Sharon couldn't get over how much he sounded like the secretary of a workers committee. Defense policy didn't interest him in the least.
Like the conductor of an orchestra, a person who aspires to become a national leader must be familiar with all the instruments. Peretz is too busy in his own narrow niche as a trade union boss. This doesn't mean that he's crash-landed. He still enjoys the intriguing status of a promising leader with extraordinary talent. If he succeeds in coming up with a political program for demarcating permanent borders, dismantling settlements, ending the occupation and stopping the bloodshed, he may soar again. Poverty is not going to run away.
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