Suddenly Everyone Is Talking Pensions

Even Amir Peretz knows that the Labor Party probably will not set up the next government. Nevertheless, during a visit to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv yesterday, he already gave himself an election achievement.

Even Amir Peretz knows that the Labor Party probably will not set up the next government. Nevertheless, during a visit to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv yesterday, he already gave himself an election achievement.

"In the past, when I would walk through the streets, I heard questions only about [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians. Today, everyone who comes up to me wants to speak to me about pensions and the minimum wage," he says. "It's a pleasure to see the citizens have new insights, that they realize the diplomatic issue is dependent on the international situation while social gaps depend entirely on us. Our ideological victory in the election campaign has been unequivocal; our campaign has taken over the agenda."

Labor members point to the propaganda of the other parties as proof of their success in focusing the public dialogue on socio-economic matters. Peretz, they say, forced the other candidates to relate to social issues. Benjamin Netanyahu emotionally called on "those who were harmed by the economic plan" to give him another chance; Kadima sources speak of negative income tax, as a response to Peretz' call for a higher minimum wage: Shas has devoted its entire campaign to attacking Netanyahu and presenting terrifying figures about the state of poverty instead of dealing with restoring matters to their former glory. Even the National Union-National Religious Party talks about the rights of the handicapped and about poverty, together with the dream of a Greater Israel.

"They understand they have to mention this but they don't have clearly formulated programs like Amir," says Labor candidate Shelly Yachimovitch. "They invented the compassion dialogue, such as 'open the fridges and give food to the poor.' This is the language of soup kitchens and of charity, all wrapped up in compassion. We don't speak of compassion, we talk about justice." Peretz's attempt to run a large party for the first time with socio-economic issues as its major banner, was a gamble. If the polls prove correct and social issues do not give Labor more than its existing electoral power (22 seats together with One Nation) this gamble could be seen as a failure. Some of the party members believe that the social agenda saved Labor from total disintegration in the wake of the establishment of Kadima. Their party may have been fated, they believe, to shrink to the size of Likud and Shinui had Peretz not raised the social banner. "It saved the party from the Kadima tsunami," one member said.

Ever since Peretz was elected head of the party, his advisers tried to persuade him to relinquish the social campaign. Many of them contended that, when he speaks about social issues, he is perceived once again as the head of the Histadrut labor federation.

"If you want to leap into the national league, you must express opinions on diplomatic matters," one of his advisers told him.

But Peretz was adamant. "In retrospect, we succeeded in turning him into a national leader even though he employed social issues," they say with pride.

Prof. Dan Guttwein of the University of Haifa, one of Peretz' admirers from the realms of academia, says Peretz made another historic contribution to the election campaign: He introduced the European socio-economic dialogue for the first time. "Peretz founded Israel's social-democrat party, which did not exist for 40 years. Israeli society had a unilateral concept of economic issues, and there was no alternative. He provided a real option."

Guttwein says he believes this is not a mere election gimmick. "Peretz' determination to oust Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak from the party can be understood only in the context of his desire to get rid of the approaches they represent in order to set up a new agenda," he claims. On the way to founding the Israeli social-democrat party, Peretz and his supporters have to contend with heavily loaded concepts in Israeli society. The Histadrut which Peretz used as a springboard on his way to the Labor Party is also holding him down when it comes to being elected. Time and again, Labor spokesmen are forced to contend with the claim that "Peretz only helped the big workers' committees." Yachimovitch says the Histadrut was the target of "a well-planned slander campaign whose aim was to kill organized labor and turn all of us into a commodity. Challenging this, like challenging racism, requires breaking down years of emotions."

Labor's opponents reject this analysis and say Peretz failed in his attempt to change the agenda of the election campaign., "Most people will vote with security and diplomatic considerations in mind, says Kadima strategic adviser Eyal Arad. But he says that the social issue is more important for Labor voters than for supporters of other parties. NRP leader Zevulun Orlev agrees that "Labor failed to win the fight over the election agenda."

Strangely enough, the activists in social organizations, Peretz' natural allies, have actually opposed him over the past few months. "Since his election, I have been more and more angry and disappointed. He has become a total populist, and I'm not sure this is merely for election purposes," says one senior social activist. "When he used to shout, I could believe him. But they've told him to stop shouting and he listened, and now when he speaks quietly, I don't believe a word he says. My biggest fear is that I will wake up after the elections and find Peretz is a minister and nothing is changing. If Labor is not in the government, there will at least be someone to attack, but we leftists are afraid to attack other leftists in the government because they are our friends. So perhaps it is best for Peretz to gain strength and try again next time."