As old politics go, you can’t get older than Amir Peretz, the new head of the Labor Party after winning 47 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s leadership election.
He is currently the longest-serving Knesset member — the only one to have served in Israel’s parliament for over 30 years. (There are three other lawmakers like Peretz from the 1988 intake, including Benjamin Netanyahu, but they all took breaks in their parliamentary careers.) That Labor has turned back to its leader from 12 years ago is a sign not only of the party’s drastically reduced fortunes and fear of extinction, but of the lack of any other heavyweight politician interested in taking on the thankless job.
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So why didn’t Labor members choose Itzik Shmuli or Stav Shaffir — who are both three decades younger than Peretz — and jump a generation in the hope of rejuvenation? Peretz is said to have a much more efficient and entrenched party organization, but that wasn’t enough in itself. Five months ago, in Labor’s last primary for the candidates’ slate, both Shmuli and Shaffir leapfrogged over him and gained higher spots. So did Shelly Yacimovich. Peretz’s machine didn’t keep him from losing the 2017 leadership race against Avi Gabbay either.
It seems that the long-suffering party members felt that appointing thirtysomethings whose experience, beyond their six years apiece as MKs, was literally as social justice warriors, was a bit too much for the party that founded Israel and ruled it for half its history. Not only have Shaffir and Shmuli no executive experience, they have never made a major statement on the core issues of diplomacy and security.
Peretz may be one of a series of eight Labor leaders over the past 18 years who failed to win a general election and presided over the party’s gradual decline. But he also has a unique CV, which includes both secretary-general of the Histadrut labor federation and defense minister. (Only two other men in Israel’s history ever held both posts, and one of those was David Ben-Gurion.)
He also carries around with him a detailed and serious peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which may sound a rather fanciful thing for any Israeli politician to do nowadays, but it contrasts favorably with Shmuli and Shaffir, who have no known views on Israel’s most serious challenge.
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In a word, Labor members voted for gravitas over young blood. It comes two years after the party chose the newcomer Gabbay over Peretz. Gabbay, the maverick businessman, was an experiment — and Labor has lost its appetite for experiments.
It actually has a history of giving leaders a second chance: former leaders Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak were all given second chances as well. The only difference was that they had all served as prime ministers. Peretz never has, and no one expects him ever to.
Peretz now has two missions: First, to try to use the tiny bit of momentum from his victory to make at least some progress from the six seats Labor currently holds. But even with a slightly improved showing in the polls, he will have no choice but to enter negotiations with the comebacking Ehud Barak over combining Labor’s candidates’ slate with that of Barak’s new, still unnamed party. There is no room for two parties in the gap between left-wing Meretz and polyglot-centrist Kahol Lavan. There’s barely room for one. Peretz will have to find a way to join forces with Barak, to ensure Labor survives on September 17.
It will be a bitter pill to swallow. When Barak got his second chance in 2007, it was at Peretz’s expense. Barak not only deposed Peretz from the leadership, but summarily removed him from the Defense Ministry. Neither veteran politician and two-time Labor leader will have an easy time working with the other. But they have little choice — not only if they want to be part of a united front dedicated to replacing Netanyahu, but if they want Labor to survive.