Shedding Values of Past, MK Amir Peretz Reemerges in Labor Elite

The entry of a new member and the comeback of a veteran one are expected to shift alliances in the unruly Labor Party.

An illustration showing Isaac Herzg, Shelly Yacimovich, Amir Peretz and Avi Nissenkorn.
Amos Biderman

Amir Peretz is an inspiring politician. With rare dexterity, he manages to reinvent and recharge himself every few years, even when it seems he’s been battered into oblivion. With articulateness and deep inner conviction, he shakes off serious questions of morality and values and, flaunting inexhaustible energy, opens a new leaf – old-new, or new-old – as though he’s making his debut on the stage, virginal and fresh.

Next week Peretz is going to rejoin the Labor Party, which he abandoned bitterly three years ago, just before the 2013 election, leaving behind vastoceans of hostility and a desire to take revenge against the party’s leader at the time, Shelly Yacimovich. He jumped ship to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and was appointed a minister in the third Netanyahu government – even though the main reason he gave for leaving Labor was that Yacimovich had not ruled out the possibility of joining a Netanyahu government.

The cynical and opportunistic affair with Livni ended long ago, Hatnuah is a one-time episode, and Peretz, like a cruise missile, has calculated a new route and destination.

It will be Peretz’s second homecoming. On the eve of the 1999 election, unable to get along with then-Labor leader Ehud Barak either personally or ideologically, he bolted and established his own party, One Nation, which won three seats. In 2005, Peretz returned to Labor, at the encouragement of its eternally temporary leader, Shimon Peres. But Peretz’s gratitude to his patron evaporated even before the party dues were deducted from his bank account. Spotting the legendary leader’s weakness, Peretz ran against him for party chair and won.

Six years later, Peretz got a taste of the same medicine he dished out to Peres from his erstwhile protege Yacimovich. These days, she and Peretz – until recently separated by rivers of bad blood – are harmoniously going with the flow. They share ambitions and joint political intrigues vis-a-vis the other alliance in the party – between the leader, Isaac Herzog, and the head of the Histadrut federation of labor, Avi Nissenkorn. 

With interesting timing, Nissenkorn jumped the gun on Peretz by a few days and announced on Tuesday that he was joining Labor. This was a much-needed boost for Herzog, who was being buffeted by a series of blows. Herzog had good reason to ask Peretz to delay his homecoming announcement until this coming Monday, a day after the party convention. Peretz was quite capable of organizing a pretentious entrance that would have diverted media attention from the programmatic speeches of the party stalwarts. For his part, Herzog doesn’t feel threatened by Nissenkorn: For the leader of the unionized workers in the country to stir interest, he would have to be accompanied by a trained chorus.

Even though Peretz is no longer the power in the party that he once was, he’s still considered a serious player. He possesses public status and political heft, and those are rare commodities in Labor/Zionist Union. You have Herzog, Livni, Yacimovich and Eitan Cabel there. That’s pretty much it. 

While Peretz, a true workhorse, officially starts plowing the party field next week, in practice he’s been toiling there for a long time. Since he announced his intention to return, a couple of months ago, he’s been attending party events, positioning himself amicably alongside Herzog. Peretz is also the only party figure who’s capable of cooking up something together with former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, should the latter decide to enter politics via Labor. The two are friends and meet frequently to exchange views. In case you’ve forgotten, Peretz, in his capacity as defense minister in the Ehud Olmert government, appointed Ashkenazi not once but twice – as Defense Ministry director general in 2006, and as chief of staff a year later.

The prevailing view in Labor is that Peretz & Yacimovich are concocting a two-phased, two-pronged move: One will run for the party leadership, the other for leadership of the Histadrut. The final division of labor, so to speak, will be decided upon depending on the circumstances, when the time comes. On the other hand, neither of them is suicidal. They’ll decide whether and how to test their power according to their strengths or weaknesses.

The Herzog-Nissenkorn duo is not deaf or blind to these developments; hence their alliance. They both want to defer the Labor primary until the second half of 2017, after the Histadrut election. Nissenkorn knows that if the votes are held in the reverse order, he will be more vulnerable. Better for him to have the candidates for Labor leadership beg him for support as a newly elected, strong Histadrut chief, than for him to ask for their help, as a contender. He also prefers to have Peretz and Yacimovich busy thinking about whether to run for Labor leadership and to leave him in peace, rather than a scenario in which one is elected party leader and urges his/her buddy to seek the Histadrut leadership.

The problem with these ultra-rational plans is that, in the end, you’re liable to be battered from an unexpected direction. Peretz and Yacimovich are the known threats. But what if a new candidate for the Histadrut suddenly emerges out of nowhere? Someone recently mentioned the name of MK Orly Levi-Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu) – albeit, merely as a hypothetical example of a dark horse.

Nissenkorn is considered easy prey in the political arena; he has no legions behind him and can be easily shoved aside. His aides say otherwise. He may look like an anemic kid, but beneath the pallor lies a sharp-clawed mega-predator. We’ve seen that Herzog, too, isn’t such a wimp. He’s capable of fighting back, and if is indeed true that he intends to hire the services of the strategic adviser Motti Morel, with whom he’s consulted a few times lately, then he’s getting ready for a dirty war, in which anything goes.