Labor Party leader Amir Peretz surely knew that unveiling his new mustache-less visage on Israel’s premier TV news show would make him the laughingstock of Israeli punditry. It’s nothing more than a ludicrous gimmick that points to Peretz’s desperation, commentators said.
The conceptual and electoral revolution that Peretz promised when he hooked up with popular social activist Orli Levi-Abeksis has so far yielded only lowly poll numbers that place Labor precariously close to the deadly threshold of 3.25 percent needed to get into the Knesset. Frustrated and out of fresh ideas, Peretz tried to attract public attention by heralding the removal of his mustache in front of a TV audience, as if cutting off his facial hair was a development of historic proportions. Pathetic.
>> Read more: Labor leader loses trademark mustache, but election could cost him much more | Analysis
But there is another way of looking at Peretz’s self-inflicted humiliation – not as a cheap trick but as heartfelt atonement, a conscious or unconscious effort to make amends for his original sin. Sacrificing his trademark bristles, which evolved over time from an unkempt walrus to a carefully cut chevron mustache and without which Peretz probably can’t recognize himself in the mirror, is the punishment that he meted out to himself for his self-sabotage of a historic opportunity to jolt and reshape Israeli politics.
Peretz said he was shearing his mustache so that people could “read my lips” as he vowed never to join a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu – for good reason. His previous prevarication on the issue crippled and most likely doomed his revolutionary plan to refocus Labor on social issues and thus render it more palatable to right-wing voters.
Overjoyed at his successful recruitment of Levi-Abeksis in July, Peretz made a rookie mistake by forgetting to formulate their joint coherent response to inevitable questions about joining a Netanyahu coalition. It was their elusive and mostly incomprehensible responses during the first 24 hours after their new alliance was announced, rather than the ethnic prejudices recklessly and maliciously ascribed by their detractors, that repelled masses of Labor Party voters who view Netanyahu as an abomination beyond the pale.
Peretz’s ambivalent approach could have been seen as logical and potentially advantageous – if only he’d stuck to it. After all, anyone presuming to draw votes from the right-wing camp can hardly afford to impose a personal and unconditional boycott on its recognized leader. Peretz, however, was soon jolted by the mass flight of Labor voters and terrified by the threat of other Labor stalwarts defecting in the footsteps of popular lawmaker Stav Shaffir, who joined forces with Ehud Barak and Meretz. He began to swear off any thought of joining Netanyahu, effectively trying to close the barn door after the horse had bolted.
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Which is how and why Peretz lost the best of both worlds: On the one hand, he spurned an opportunity to head a unified and vibrant leftist bloc encompassing Labor, Barak and Meretz, and on the other he babbled himself to nowhere on the cardinal question – to be or not to be with Netanyahu. Instead of championing and disseminating his people-oriented social vision, rather than leading a popular uprising against ongoing discrimination, increasing inequality, deepening poverty and the escalating degradation of Israel’s health, education, transportation and social services, Peretz wasted his time trying and failing to rebuff suspicions that no matter what words his mouth uttered, his heart was set on joining a Netanyahu cabinet.
After all, the steady deterioration of government-funded services is Netanyahu’s clearest failure, and after ten straight years in power, one that is entirely his own. While the economy thrives and hi-tech wizards are having a ball, Netanyahu’s policy has abandoned poor, disabled and minority Israelis – along with the entire lower and middle classes – to a failing public sector starving for resources. And things are likely to get much worse in the near future, given the government’s mushrooming budget deficits.
Theoretically at least, Peretz could have given voice to the burgeoning ranks of Israel’s downtrodden. In doing so, he would have shamed his political rivals, who studiously and arrogantly ignore the rampant systemic failures surrounding them. Peretz could have retained his mustache and Israeli voters would have gained a worthy alternative. Shame that he blew it.