Text size

As part of his vision of a melting pot, David Ben-Gurion used to say that one day Israel will have a Yemenite chief of staff. He meant, of course, a Mizrahi (Jew of Middle Eastern descent) chief of staff. It's interesting that he never said that one day, we will have a Mizrahi prime minister. Moreover, in the days when he decided to promote young Mapainiks to key positions, despite opposition from party veterans, there was no Yemenite, Moroccan or any other Mizrahi among them. To this day, there has not been a Mizrahi prime minister in Israel. It took 36 years for there to be the first Mizrahi chief of staff, Moshe Levy; it took 56 years before a Mizrahi was appointed head of the Mossad; and there still hasn't been a Mizrahi head of the Shin Bet security service.

Hence, nobody can say that the ethnic element does not play a role in the opposition to the election of Amir Peretz as head of the Labor Party. His mustache and curly hair have been the brunt of jokes (by me, as well, I admit with retroactive sorrow), particularly in these days leading up to the Labor primaries. It's interesting that the mockery of his haircut comes from a party in which the offices are decorated with busts of Berl Katzenelson, with his own unruly haircut and thick mustache that makes nobody laugh and is not the subject of jokes.

Unlike with regard to Israeli politic's caricature-like personalities who focused on matters of honor and feelings of ethnic discrimination, nobody argued, at least not until recently, that Peretz uses his ethnic origins to promote his political agenda. Nowadays, it's not very nice to tell it like it is. Instead, there are educated economists who analyze his unionist approach and warn the public against a return to the archaic socialism of a centralized economy that will increase unemployment, and bring back the dependency on welfare - and other such warnings.

The shortcoming in this criticism is that it is based on the false assumption that Labor will win a sweeping victory in the coming elections. When I supported Shimon Peres a few months ago, I regarded him as the default candidate, despite his advanced age. But as things appear now, as long as Ariel Sharon or even Benjamin Netanyahu head the Likud, there is no reasonable chance that Labor, with its current leaders, will form the next government. Labor is a dead man walking; it has lost its vitality. Everyone knows that it needs a breath of fresh air and an injection of adrenalin. A lot of glittering names have been mentioned as potential candidates, from Avishai Braverman to Ami Ayalon. The problem is that none of them is ready to dip his feet into the freezing waters of politics.

The Israeli electorate is fed up with its politicians, their petty and large corruption, with combinations like the Matan Vilnai-Peres deal, with the same old faces that appear over and over and hold onto the altar with all their might. It is disappointed with the Ehud Barak comet, who I believe has finished forever his career as a Labor leader. The public wants an authentic leader, and not princes who wait until they are delivered the leadership on a silver platter.

In the internal upheaval that Labor needs, the 52-year-old Peretz is a hope that cannot be ruled out. His acquaintances say he is the salt of the earth, a man who is not two-faced, who speaks his truths without fudging. But can he really be prime minister? That is the question hanging in the air. It is unclear whether anyone asked the same of Yitzhak Shamir on the one hand, or Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Vilnai on the other. If Peretz wins the primaries, he would lead Labor into opposition to build it as an alternative to the Likud. His view is that Sharon has reached the limits of his abilities insofar as more concessions are concerned. Life in the opposition would give Peretz a sufficiently long incubation period to ripen as a leader who would bring about the upheaval and change Labor needs.

Peretz is an authentic leader, resilient, and far more know-ledgeable than it appears about the economic needs of the country in this era. And most importantly, Peretz will be an authentic representative of the periphery, an estimated one million voters. After the generation of the founders, and the generation of the second Israel, Peretz of Sderot as a natural grassroots leader, has a chance to lead the third revolution in Israeli history. Despite his mustache and haircut, he does not deserve the mockery.