The Art of the Possible

Amir Peretz is a talented man with a good brain in his head. So why on earth is he so envious of the Likud?

Amir Peretz is a talented man with a good brain in his head, lots of natural intelligence and the kind of burning ambition you need to become prime minister. He has also strong nerves. He can listen to infuriating remarks without responding, or responding when he decides the time is ripe. To top it all, he nurses a certain ingrained sense of discrimination. While feeling rejected by the political establishment on ethnic grounds, he has never used this as a springboard to launch himself into the constellation of Israeli politics.

He was the one who was most surprised at his triumph over the great, never-say-die Shimon Peres like a bolt out of the blue. Overnight, he became not only the chairman of the Labor Party but its candidate for prime minister. He hopped and skipped for joy like a little boy who got the present he's been wishing for all his life. One of the most refreshing statements to come out of his mouth as a wave of new politicians began to gather at his door was: The ethnic genie is dead and buried.

In view of the glittering cast he has assembled around him and the fresh new scent that pervades the air, I was surprised to read his remarks this week about the racist attitude he has come up against. In an interview with Haaretz correspondent Lily Galili on Friday, he said: "If I were chairman of the Likud, I would have been prime minister long ago."

The Likud, the man says? Don't make me laugh. The Likud, in every reincarnation since the establishment of the state, from the Herut movement onward, has spent at least half its life controlled by immigrants from Poland. Most Herut voters were Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), but no Mizrahi ever came close to being head of the party and/or its candidate for prime minister.

It is indeed a source of wonder that in Israel's 58th year, there are many Mizrahim at the top - ministers, deputy ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of staff, even presidents; but there has never been a Mizrahi prime minister or even a Mizrahi candidate for prime minister in any party running for election. It's not easy to break the taboo.

Maybe Peretz was bothered by it, but he didn't follow in the footsteps of David Levy. He was active in the Yitzhak Rabin camp, along with the Ashkenazim. He has always taken dovish positions. He was one of the Gang of Eight headed by Avraham Burg and Haim Ramon. As the militant leader of the Histadrut labor federation, his ethnic background never seemed to cramp his style.

Hence his shock when Peres snubbed his nose at the rules of the democratic game and absconded to Kadima, making it legitimate for other members of Labor to make a beeline for the other side, as if Peretz were some tainted creature. Peres, after so many years at the helm of the Labor Party, simply called it quits, unwilling to accept the outcome of democratic procedure. The feeling he projected was that Peretz was a joke, that he was not worthy of being number one - and never would be.

The fact that Labor under Peretz has drummed up no more than 20 seats (a temporary statistic) is said to be proof of Peretz's personal failure. But this is not so. Labor under Peres has been a walking corpse for years. Hatred of Mapai (or the Ma'arach, as the party's detractors call it, enunciating it as if it were some kind of dreaded disease) runs deep. In recent years, this has been particularly true in the Russian sector. The mass desertion of the Labor Party has been Ashkenazi. In fact, they left in droves in the 2003 elections just when Amram Mitzna, "one of our own," was the would-be king.

The attitude of Israeli voters is very personal. They hated Peres; they hated Ehud Barak; they hated Mitzna. Here, unlike the famous line in The Godfather, everything is personal. Benjamim Netanyahu is tottering backward for the same reason. Most of the public believes that the Houdini is gone and only Bibi is left.

Politics is the art of the possible. Two weeks before the country goes to the polls, Peretz must establish himself and his party as Kadima's chief coalition partner. The argument that he has no government experience, that he was never a minister or a deputy minister, will not be held against him if he creates a situation in which Kadima is forced to form a government with Labor instead of Bibi and Avigdor Lieberman.

With all the tests the Israeli government will be put to over the next four years, Peretz, as a senior coalition partner, as deputy prime minister and/or holder of some top ministerial post, will acquire all the experience he needs in real time. The last word has not been said. Only 52 years old and a born fighter, Peretz has not thrown in the towel. He'll get there yet.