This article was originially published April 21, 2017 and re-upped ahead of the Labor Party leadership run-off between Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay.
Sderot, 1983. The southern town was approaching its municipal elections during a tense period, in which the political upheaval of a few years before was washing over the periphery and permeating the new Israeli local scene. Young Mizrahi leaders who grew up in development towns were conquering the municipal outposts controlled by the Labor Alignment, one after the other.
Two years after the country’s most turbulent national election, with echoes of Dudu Topaz’s “chach-chachim” speech still wafting across the south, Sderot’s residents elected Amir Peretz to his first term as local council chairman. Peretz was a young, energetic guy from the ‘hood affiliated with the Alignment, who even then was speaking about two states for two peoples. He served another term in Sderot and was then elected to the Knesset, from which he jumped to the Histadrut labor federation, where he once again raised the voice of the working-class town where he was raised and where he chose to remain.
Peretz’s days at the Histadrut led to his first ideological confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu, who as finance minister was aggressively promoting his neoliberal worldview. In 2006, when Peretz headed the Labor party, he transformed the voting patterns in the outlying areas. Be’er Sheva, Ofakim, Dimona, Yerucham, Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Sderot, Mitzpe Ramon, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Shlomi and Kiryat Shmona all crossed the lines and voted Labor.
That’s the power of clearheaded leadership that inspires trust, based on a coherent social and national vision, fashioned in a continuing process and standing the test in the public arena. It’s also the power of charismatic, authoritative leadership like that of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. It doesn’t come from being embraced by the media or from Facebook posts. It draws its inspiration from ideas and is deeply rooted in Israeliness. Most importantly, it isn’t the fruit of the obsession to bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu, which yields up figures like Yair Lapid. Instead, it is channeled from a social and diplomatic alternative that’s based on distinctions, not endless blurring.
Peretz isn’t fault-free. Some of his mistakes stemmed from his uncompromising grip on his truth; some are documented in the history of Labor factionalism. But Peretz doesn’t deny the social and cultural tension in Israel, and he has an intense desire to heal the wounds among the nation's tribes – right-left, religious-secular, Mizrahi-Ashkenazi, Arab-Jew.
As a Mizrahi, traditional leader from the periphery who is true to his roots and seeks peace, he has the greatest potential in the leftist camp to cope with the cultural fault line being drawn between universal liberalism and its opponents, which expresses itself in the aggressive struggle for control over the public sphere.
Moreover, Peretz has a proven track record; the pension laws, the minimum wage law and Iron Dome, which he fought for when he was defense minister out of a deep sensitivity to the needs of the home front and public safety. Other candidates for the Labor leadership also have advantages. Erel Margalit has a background in entrepreneurship. Avi Gabbay is a moral, honest person. But if the Labor party is interested in historic and political justice between it and the development towns; if it wants to advance a courageous political process and bring about social change, it has only one clear leader: Amir Peretz.
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