The Bottom Line / Messiah Needed

"Dictator," "manipulator," "thug," - these were just a few of the compliments that Amir Peretz has heard in the past two days from his best friends, the cabinet ministers belonging to the party of which he was voted chairman. They are in complete shock. Only a few days ago they were securely glued to their seats, giving orders and determining fates, planning their next official junket (to Japan or Brazil) - and here comes this tyro from Sderot who reshuffles the deck, and forces them away from the moneypots.

Peretz's comments about continuing in the spirit of the Oslo Accords, ending the occupation, and signing an agreement over final arrangements with the Palestinians didn't sit well with the Labor ministers either. They are accustomed to vague formulations that say yes and no in the same breath in order to preserve the coalition with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon until November 2010, at the very earliest.

Many would like to believe that Peretz is a social democrat. There are even some analysts and MKs who think that if they distort the image of reality, it will change to suit their wishes. They go as far as to say that Peretz is in favor of privatizing Bank Leumi and Israel Military Industries, without even talking to the man himself.

I spoke to Peretz Friday afternoon. He explained to me at length why he opposes privatizating Leumi, IMI and the Israel Electric Corp. He said that Leumi must remain in government hands "so that the bank can set the lowest fee and interest rates, and cause the rest of the banking system to lower their prices."

It sounds wonderful, like a magic formula. But Leumi is already in government hands. Is it the cheapest bank? The most efficient? Don't make me laugh. Didn't it take part in the manipulation known as the bank shares scandal in the early 1980s? Didn't it entice its customers into taking out loans in order to buy trust funds? Ask the customers who lost money.

Peretz continued, saying that he wants there to be one company under public ownership in every branch of the economy that will set the tone, reduce prices, provide excellent customer service, and lead the way for the private sector. Exactly what world is he talking about? The reality is completely the opposite. When the government, the Histadrut or any other public body tries to run a business, we end up with higher prices and worse service. Have we forgotten the Postal Authority, with 200,000 people waiting for a phone line to be installed in their homes?

The government's role is to create proper conditions for business (low state budgets, low taxes, good infrastructure and excellent education), but absolutely not to run business itself. Governments always fail at that, just like the Histadrut. Has Peretz already forgotten the colossal failures of Koor, Solel Boneh and Hassneh? These three were owned by the Histadrut and had exactly the same worldview as Peretz. They gave their employees great conditions, never fired anyone, never introduced efficiencies - until they went bankrupt and fired 30,000 people all at once!

I asked Peretz about Benny Gaon, the former CEO of Koor, who said that after Peretz's rise to national status, he would have to change his economic agenda. Peretz was not impressed: "I'm not about to change anything. The things I said as Histadrut chairman are still true today."

Nevertheless, many people are saying that once Peretz feels the full burden of responsibility weighing on his shoulders, he will become a Western European-style social democrat. We know that leaders can change. The late prime minister Menachem Begin said he would build his home in the Sinai settlement of Yamit, but afterward he evacuated it. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said he would meet with the PLO only on the battlefield, but afterward he shook hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the settlement of Netzarim was the same as Tel Aviv, but afterward he evacuated the entire Gaza Strip. They changed their positions. But there is no proof that Amir Peretz will turn into social democrat a la England, France, Germany and Sweden. And so, the Prophet Elijah will answer all the unresolved questions and problems in the time of the Messiah.