Laboring Under a Delusion

Amir Peretz can't change the Labor Party - at least that's what Yossi Beilin thinks.

Yesterday morning, Yossi Beilin, the chairman of Meretz-Yahad, had not yet phoned either of them. Neither the political teacher who was defeated nor the former friend who won. He spent 30 years in the Labor Party, most of them at the side of Shimon Peres. Amir Peretz was his ally in the "sextet" and the "octet" − those generational groupings of people who are now 50-plus, who scattered in all directions. Which of them will he call first, I asked him yesterday morning.

Shimon Peres, he replied.

Habits are hard to change: Every Friday, at 8 in the morning, they meet. It has been this way for years. The adviser who has become the leader of another party continues to come to this unusual consultation with, it can now be said, the former leader of the competing party. Beilin comes to Shimon Peres' bureau for the weekly consultation, in which some other former associates and advisers to "Shimon" also participate. The talk there is mostly about "Shimon," perhaps only about him.

This morning, too, Beilin will go to Peres, this time for another condolence visit for another entirely unexpected defeat. This week the Labor Party has shown Peres the door, but Beilin is critical of all three candidates.

Were you happy about the result?Beilin: "On the one hand there is a change here that offers a better chance for a turnaround in the general elections and therefore there is cause for hope here; on the other hand, I have to admit, because of my personal closeness to Peres, I was sad to see Peres lose. I would have been much happier had Peretz defeated some other candidate."

What will happen now?"With respect to the peace process, Peretz represents the correct view. Throughout the years he has been a Peace Now person, who courageously faced a rightist public, even back when he was the mayor of Sderot. Now, too, he is calling for a permanent status agreement and I only hope he will not content himself just with slogans, will support the Geneva Initiative and will call upon the Palestinians to support it.

"Socially, I think he will have to present a more precise view of how the society should work, of how Israel should conduct itself in the era of globalization and of what a welfare state is.

"Personally, there were many years of cooperation between us. Amir Peretz is a person with a lot of positive things. But when we were together in the 'sextet' and the 'octet,' we weren't exposed to his tyranny. What has happened during these years in the Histadrut is unbelievable with respect to the crudeness and the personal conduct. That combination of the One Nation party and the Histadrut was a truly terrible thing. Before you represent the right positions, you have to be a human being. In the end, that's the most important thing, and signs of dictatorialness are something that is insufferable."

In the days of Mapai you also couldn't move without a red card."First of all, maybe. But it wasn't to this extent. There's a difference between whether you have a red card and whether you come to the secretary of the workers' council and say to him: 'I'm going to fire you if you don't join One Nation, or I'm going to eliminate your district.'"

Intellectuals who supposedly would support Meretz supported Peretz."People see him as a savior but they, too, will realize the reality is very different. They will understand Peretz's problem as a leader."

His election will harm Meretz?"I've seen public opinion surveys that show a strengthening for Meretz in a situation of Peretz being elected. I hope Meretz grows stronger as a party that has proved it does not submit to the Likud's courtship. But the big question is not Labor or Meretz, but rather whether the bloc that won under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 can win again."

So why not merge now? What is the difference between you and Labor headed by Peretz?"There will not be a merger like that before the elections, but thoughts of an alignment after the elections are something we will have to discuss. Labor has not become a different party under Peretz. This is a party that is blinded by the lust for power, a party that has lent a hand to an economic policy that has widened terrible gaps and to a security policy that has led us to the darkest hours."

But now it has elected Peretz, who is opposed to most of those things."I think it will be very difficult for Peretz to change the Labor Party. They also pinned great hopes on Amram Mitzna. Mitzna said he wanted to leave the government and that he supported negotiations with the Palestinians on a permanent status agreement. But Mitzna remained alone. The question isn't only Peretz, but also the party that you support. Just as anyone who votes for [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon also gets [Likud rebel MK Uzi] Landau, anyone who votes for Labor will get Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Even though there is a greater similarity now, Meretz is a much more homogenous party and clearer in its positions."

At your meeting with Peres today, will you suggest to him that it is time for him to go home?"This is not my business, I'm not in his party and Peretz has already called upon him to remain at his side. One of the great advantages of having gone over to Meretz is that I don't need to choose."

But anyway?"No anyway. I can only tell you why I wouldn't support any of the candidates."

Why?"Shimon Peres, who is certainly the person of the highest quality, by virtue of the fact that he is a member of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's government has put the mark of Cain on the forehead of the Labor Party. It's not a simple thing for me to say this. He is in a government that has given a hand to Sharon's terrible policy in the territories, to the destruction of infrastructures and to the vicious cycle of blood that is unparalleled since the establishment of the state. Never have so many civilians been killed, under any government. The fact that the Labor Party is there is a terrible thing, with the stupid cover of the exit from Gaza. They could have done what we did and supported the disengagement from outside.

"These have been years of the destruction of the alternative, of accepting Sharon's new messages − we won't talk until the terror stops − and Labor doesn't even comment on this. Here Peres has done something that is at least a terrible mistake, and therefore I don't think he can lead the alternative.

"As for Amir Peretz, my problem is not that he doesn't have any experience in statesmanship. He has a healthy outlook on matters of state and a unique social outlook. His problem is that he, as Histadrut chairman, leads a system with an iron fist and runs a regime of fear. The fact that he came to the Histadrut out of a desire to prevent party politics there and created politicization there the likes of which was unknown in the past is very sad. I don't think a person like that can lead. There are very grave dictatorial elements in the Histadrut under his leadership, very worrying elements. With regard to Ben-Eliezer, I don't need to say much."

However, you continue to meet regularly with Peres."Personally, I love and admire him, but I admit he has disappointed me very much. I really can't understand how he justifies to himself remaining in the government. What he really says to himself at the end of the day. Why is he there, after Sharon says in the morning that he won't negotiate with Syria, in the afternoon that he won't meet with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] and in the evening he will build more settlements? What is Peres thinking? Thank goodness I'm not there, because if I were there I would have to break my head over what I'm doing there."

How is it possible to separate the "personal" from the "political" with respect to Peres?"I think he's the only person in the world with whom I make this distinction. He is a very, very special person who has rare advantages, even when I'm angry at him, and I think in recent years he's made a dramatic mistake. The man who for me has always stood for optimism and the belief that the hope of getting out of a difficult situation enables you to get out of it has led his party and the entire camp to think there is no chance, that it is better to be a secondary driver in Sharon's chariot.

"Peres has made a contribution worth its weight in gold to Sharon's popularity, in his willingness to accept the grave things he does. Sharon owes Peres the legitimization he has won in Israel and internationally, which he never had and which he does not deserve. That man has made it his aim not to achieve peace, he's prepared only to get out of Gaza and he has a Nobel Peace Prize laureate at his side."

Sharon has taken a step that Labor never dared to take."If I were prime minister, I wouldn't have left Gaza. This isn't a dream Sharon has realized. If I were prime minister, I would summon Abu Mazen and tell him I am prepared to come to an agreement on the basis of two states and the division of Jerusalem, something Sharon will never do in his life."

Would Peres do that?"I'm not certain."

So maybe Sharon simply represents Peres' real positions?"That's not so. Sharon does not represent Peres. It's not fair to say that of Peres. I simply think that from a certain stage Peres came to the conclusion that there is nothing to be done here. Maybe this happened after his loss to [Benjamin] Netanyahu in 1996, which was an astonishing blow to him and to us and prevented him from going back and fighting. Peres was a fighter, a person who does battle, against Rabin, against Begin, and at some stage he said to himself the only thing that can be done is corrections here and there.

"When [Ehud] Barak set out on the fight of his life for the permanent status agreement, Peres told him it would be better not to try at all to reach an argument on Jerusalem and the refugees. That campaign, 'Peres will divide Jerusalem,' was traumatic for him and now he is saying there is no need to be in a hurry to reach a permanent status agreement, after he had signed that we would reach a permanent status agreement by May, 1999. This is very grim."

Maybe it's age?"I don't think it's age. He's a young man. Peres rejected my agreements with Abu Mazen in 1996, even though today Sharon would be prepared to take this."

So maybe it's because he isn't signed on them?"I hope not."

What motivates him?"There is no doubt he is living with the sense that he is a public figure who has to stand guard and navigate the ship of state, but he has reached the conclusion that now it is only possible to go with the right and be what used to be called a 'corrective' to the right."

How will the election of Peretz influence "the big bang?""I don't think the big bang is around the corner and I don't think it will disappear. Even if it happens, it will be for one term. After one term it will fall apart."

Are you sorry you're not in the Labor Party now with Peretz?"For quite a number of years I was the ugly duckling of Labor. Even when I was elected to second place on the list they said to me that I was Meretz. And that was true to some extent. I believed I could influence more from within. After 2001 I felt that I couldn't influence any longer. That hasn't changed now."