Amir Peretz is not Nadia Comaneci, who sprang unexpectedly into the limelight when she won four gold medals at the 1975 European gymnastics championships. Neither is he Cinderella, who suffered prolonged abuse before a prince placed a crown upon her head. Peretz is a very experienced politician who has been strutting the Israeli public stage for 22 years.
Ministers, MKs, high-ranking officials and journalists have gotten to know him and have pointed out his virtues and weaknesses, his manner and his beliefs. Peretz is not a rare breed of a public figure; he has proved that he is well-versed in the finer arts of the political game, with its trickery, maneuvering, connivery, aggressiveness and zigzagging.
Hence, those who are now placing Peretz on a pedestal are doing him an injustice, because they are heightening our expectations from the man and his abilities. Peretz will have to work very hard to survive at the apex of the Labor Party, and to be accepted by the public at large as a worthy candidate for prime minister.
First and foremost, lying in ambush are his rivals among Labor's leadership, who will be waiting for the first suitable opportunity to topple and replace him. And Peretz will certainly have to make an effort to consolidate his persona as a national leader who appeals to audiences outside of the Labor fold. This is no easy task, and he will run into various predicaments. The biggest challenge he faces will be overcoming them without losing his true self.
The left wing, which broke into a song and dance on Thursday morning upon learning of the results of the Labor leadership face-off, does not have the electoral power to capture more than 20 seats in the Knesset (part of Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties). With such a constituency, it is impossible to take the premiership. Therefore, if Peretz makes his political beliefs the focus of his election campaign, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to attract sufficient voters to give Labor the lead in the Knesset.
While the Israeli public is gradually leaning to the left when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians - most recently illustrated by the sweeping support for the disengagement plan - the process has yet to reach its peak. The majority is in the center, which, for now anyway, does not believe in Meretz's political positions. As a result, if Labor's elected leader wishes to rise to the office of prime minister, he will have to tread wisely - so as not to come across as the ideological twin of Yossi Beilin or Yossi Sarid, yet still maintain his credibility as someone who represents the opposite approach to that of Ariel Sharon when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The way for Peretz to square the circle - as things appear to stand now, at least - is to flood the public discourse with his socioeconomic beliefs, and to dull, or relegate to second place, his political worldview. Whereas Ariel Sharon (regardless of the party framework from which he chooses to vie for the office of prime minister) will make the conflict with the Palestinians the focus of his election campaign, Amir Peretz's campaign will have to center on the needs of the weaker strata and the welfare policies, in his opinion, that are required to satisfy them. He will have to work toward ensuring that his dispute with Sharon does indeed revolve around the correct national priorities - the territories versus the needs of the Israel within the Green Line.
It appears this is the only way that Peretz will be able to keep an extended hold on the spontaneous support that has, until now, given its voice to the Likud and Shas - and that rejoiced on learning of the results of his face-off against Shimon Peres.
If Peretz is dragged into the agenda dictated by Sharon - namely, focusing the election campaign on security issues and Israel's relationship with the Palestinians - he will be playing into the prime minister's hands, because the argument will center on the Labor leader's far-reaching dovish standpoints (a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, a willingness for a relinquishing of territories in return for the annexation of the settlement blocs) that, very regrettably, are not currently in high demand among the electorate.
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