Paradoxically and somewhat cruelly, the public opinion polls that are promising Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will head the next government could well serve the Labor Party in the coming days. The strategic advisers have understood that the possibility that the Moroccan from Sderot could become prime minister has become too much of a burden on the shoulders of the party's traditional voters. As the days go by and the surveys are showing that the "danger" has passed, they are prepared to consider returning home. Instead of asking them to vote for Labor so that Peretz will lead the country, there are those who are suggesting a search for a slogan that will ask them to vote for Labor because Peretz will not lead the country. Something cunning and modest like "Strong Labor is needed in the government."
Gideon Ben Yisrael, the pensioners' representative on the Labor list (26th place) - senior citizens are one of the most problematic electoral "areas" in the party - says he has already adopted this strategy. In recent days, he has been persuading friends who prefer Olmert at the wheel to vote for Labor, on the grounds that in any case Peretz will make do with the back seat. Ben Yisrael reveals that the survey conducted by the old-age home chain Mishan indicates that 18 percent of the pensioners in Israel trust Peretz and only 11 percent believe Kadima will do well by the pensioners.
"They have got accustomed to a president of Eastern ethnic groups, and even a defense minister and a chief of staff," says Ben Yisrael, "but a prime minister is a bit too much for them. Why is that Peretz in such a hurry, they are saying. Let him be a government minister first, and then we'll see. They don't want to hear that the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation is carrying an infinitely heavier burden than the minister of industry and trade and even the mayor of Jerusalem. It doesn't interest them that David Ben-Gurion also started his career in the Histadrut.
"I'm hearing strange and varied arguments," sighs Ben Yisrael. "They say to me, 'Where has he come from? How come he wants to be prime minister all of a sudden?' Instead of saying he isn't one of us, they say he has no experience. Sometimes I don't restrain myself and I say to them, 'Why weren't you bothered by [former prime ministerial candidate Amram] Mitzna's experience and why aren't you bothered by Olmert's experience?'"
The Labor Ashkenazis' attitude toward Peretz takes Ben Yisrael back to the 1950s, when he founded the Histadrut branch in Be'er Sheva. He recalls Golda Meir, who related to the immigrants from the Eastern ethnic group as ignoramuses, and a joke about the Moroccan secretary who asked the work supervisor at Solel Boneh how to write "Wednesday" and the latter replied scornfully: "It doesn't matter. Write Thursday."
His egalitarian approach toward the immigrants was so disliked by the party establishment that Paula Ben-Gurion spread a rumor that he had married his wife, Prof. Ruth Ben Yisrael, an Israel Prize laureate and a native of Egypt, only in order to enlist political support among the Eastern ethnic groups in Be'er Sheva. Yes, Ben Yisrael sums up with a slight hesitation, "There are traces of racism here."
The ethnic demon
A good friend of Peretz's, former MK Hagai Merom, who divides his life between Givatayim and Kibbutz Yifat, one of the traditional bastions of the Labor Party that is about to fall into Kadima's hands, jokingly says that "Amir [Peretz] has tried to bury the ethnic demon, but the Labor Party veterans are refusing to attend the funeral." He characterizes the classical defector as a middle to upper class Ashkenazi, with a higher than average education. "The difficulty these people have in accepting Amir derives from arrogance and racism toward the Moroccan, the man of the workers committees, the man from the peripheral development towns, the man all of whose sources of growth are different from those of the figures they have been accustomed to see in the leadership. Some of them are not ashamed to say: Can 'that Moroccan' or 'that mustache' be the leader of the nation?" Merom has met some who express their racism in cruder ways, and also some who hide their unwillingness to recognize Peretz as a leader behind arguments like his lack of ministerial experience. Merom says that when these same party members are asked whether they would be supporting Labor if Ami Ayalon headed the list - they return to the bosom of the party, and it gains six Knesset seats. "When they read what I say, they will all deny it and condemn me outright," says Merom, "but deep down they know this exists. The psychological transition that solidified during [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's time put the Labor Party veterans into a process of disengagement from the party and provided them with justifications not to return to it, even though Olmert is not admired by them like Sharon is."
Shimon Peres' name comes up in every discussion of the veterans' betrayal. Merom believes the departure of the mythological leader, like the lack of agreement with Ehud Barak, are nothing but value justification for some, and an excuse for others, for abandoning Labor.
Uzi Baram, formerly a senior figure in the party, a minister and the son of minister and one of Peretz's confidantes, accuses Peres of showing the way to many members of the party who want to flee from a candidate different from those they have known until now. "Peretz's election came as storm wind to the members of the party and the general public," says Baram. "Suddenly a new candidate came along who wants to represent the other Israel, the hurt and suffering Israel, and at the same time conquers the party and changes its agenda. It is clear his election was very distasteful to many of the heads of the Labor Party."
The greatest electoral damage to the Labor Party was not caused by Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik, in Baram's analysis. "Their departure was localized and the gain they bring to Kadima is minuscule. Ehud Barak treated Amir Peretz as a political rival and even joined up with Peres in an attempt to block him, but Barak has not run away. Though he is in a problematic position, he is staying. The legitimacy for leaving the Labor Party was given by the departing leader - Shimon Peres. It is he who is attracting after him masses of veterans who are certain that 'Shimon knows what he is doing.' Their flocking after Peres to Kadima cut off Labor's chances of becoming the leading party and cancelled out the supporters Peretz has brought from socioeconomic realms that had never even considered voting for it." Baram says Peres could have helped Peretz in the diplomatic area and created a combined leadership, but he did not come to terms with the fact that Peretz is at the head of the Labor Party.
Peres reminds Baram of Rahamim Kalanter, a member of the Jerusalem municipal council who in his day defected from the National Religious Party to support Gershon Agron, the Mapai [Labor Party precursor] candidate for mayor. The conservative media of that time condemned Kalanter and the term "Kalanterism" has since then been a negative epithet. "Who is Kalanter compared to Shimon Peres, the leader who was at the head of the Labor Party since 1977, was identified with it and appeared on its behalf in international forums?" demands Baram. "His departure for Kadima was entirely motivated by the desire to avenge his failure and a desire to belong to a sure and leading party. He chose to reject Amir Peretz, the candidate who was elected, who comes from a socioeconomic class that had been closed to the Labor Party, and is attracting from it voters who never even considered voting for it."
Baram blames the media that have kept mum about Peres' act and instead of discussing his betrayal after he failed against Peretz, has dealt with the question of whether Peretz had done everything to prevent his resignation. "Let's suppose he could have done more, even though he doesn't give it a chance of one in a hundred," says Baram. "What does that have to do with the angry resignation from his mother party? Why isn't any observer talking about 'Peresism' or 'Shimonism?'"
Ze'ev Schorr, the secretary of the Kibbutz movement, preferred Peres in the leadership of the Labor Party, like most of the leaders of his movement. In the primaries Peres won 67 percent of the votes of kibbutz members and Peres only 24 percent. Perhaps this is why Schorr suggests looking for the reasons for the abandonment of Labor not in Peres' betrayal and not in the claims of the members' distaste for the mustached Moroccan from a development town.
"The ethnic story is behind us," says the strongman of the kibbutzim. "We have council heads and kibbutz secretaries from all the ethnic groups." In the paratroops he had friends who were Mizrahi (Jews from the Middle Eastern countries) and his daughter is married to an Israeli of Tripolitan origin.
According to Schorr, Peretz's only ethnic problem is the connection to the Mizrahi Rainbow, an organization considered hostile to the kibbutzim. Though Peretz supported the proposed new law to anchor agriculturalists' rights to the land, an issue that is a top priority for the kibbutz movement, Shelly Yachimovitch, who is more identified with the ideas of the Mizrahi Rainbow, frightens them. Moreover, even though the Histadrut has not seen to their interests, adds Schorr, the elders of the kibbutzim have not forgiven Ramon and Peretz for handing over the Mapai bastion to outsiders.
He notes that Shlomo Ben Ami and Dalia Itzik (both of Mizrahi origin) did quite well in the kibbutz constituency, while Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, a finance minister who did good things for the kibbutzim, did not win many votes from them.
This explanation makes no impression on Schorr. With all due respect, Itzik and Ben Ami were not running for prime minister. "The Labor Party has done a great deal for the kibbutz movement and the kibbutz movement has done quite a bit for the party," says Schorr. "They represent it and it represents them, more than Tzachi Hanegbi and Roni Bar-On." He suggests to the Labor Party veterans who followed Peres that they ask themselves whether they really believe his fiction that Kadima wants peace more than anyone and that Labor has suddenly become a right-wing party.
"It makes no difference at all whether I think Peretz is suited or unsuited to be being prime minister," Schorr sums up. "In the flight from it there is an ethnic element. This is a disgraceful phenomenon that is nothing to be proud of."