A Candidate From the Margins Seeks to Lead the Country


The Hebrew word for "periphery" is periferiah. Last week, in the stunning victory of Amir Peretz over Shimon Peres for the chairmanship of the Labor Party – or, just as accurately, in the stunning loss of Shimon Peres to Amir Peretz – it was the periferiah that moved to Israel's center political stage.

The analysts say it is the biggest revolution in Israeli politics since the ascent of Menachem Begin in 1977. And they are right – that is, if the counter-revolutionaries can be kept at bay.

Israeli politics has a way of nibbling away at, when it does not downright gulp down, its overnight wonders. Remember Amram Mitzna, who was supposed to revolutionize Labor just a few years ago?

David keeps making his rhapsodic entrance to general astonishment and then applause. But, oh my, there is no Goliath, and the slingshot strategy won't work.

There is, instead, a coterie of puffed-up ex-generals whose sense of entitlement has long since gone stale, and a band of precociously fatigued younger pols, all pretending that they can somehow maneuver the resurrection of the nearly comatose Labor Party. If only they can get rid of the Moroccan-born upstart Peretz, that is.

By Israeli political standards, Peretz – five years older than George W. Bush and than Bill Clinton – is a youngster. By Israeli standards, he is also an outsider, even though he was a captain (seriously wounded in 1974) in the Israel Defense Forces, was elected mayor of his hometown of Sederot when he was 30, has been a member of Knesset for 17 years and has been chairman of the Histadrut, Israel's very political trade union movement for the past 10 years.

So what does "outsider" mean? Peretz's outsider status derives in no small measure from his Moroccan origins (he came to Israel when he was 4), but it has other sources, too.

He has only a high school education. He has staked out, to a remarkable degree, his own path and his very own power base. He often seems a man possessed, driven by both personal ambition and a genuine passion for social justice.

More than any other recent leader, he "gets" the connection between domestic social and economic policy, as well as peace policy as a veteran of Peace Now.

He keeps Jewish dietary laws and chants the Kiddush on Friday evening, a rarity in the upper echelons of Labor. He is plainly different from what has become the broken run of Labor's mill.

Israel's periphery exists not only in distant towns such as Sederot; it exists around the corner from skyscraping Tel Aviv, and in all the cities and villages of Israel's Arabs, and in B'nei Barak. Old people and religious people, Palestinians and hungry kids, and, above all, working-class Mizrachim, immigrants from Arab countries, the very people who abandoned Labor for Begin in 1977 – all these are potential supporters.

Much will depend on developments in Likud, on whether Sharon manages to hold against the Netanyahu-led assault from his right or, if not, on whether he can cobble together a credible new party.

Even more depends on a continuing lull in terror, for a significant increase would surely turn the voters' attention away from domestic policy and toward the arena where Peretz is least known and trusted, and where Sharon dominates.

It's easy to see and to say that Peretz is a breath of fresh air, especially in the Labor Party, but only a bit less in the Israeli political system at large. But the truth is that Israel needs more than fresh air. Given the near-collapse of its public services, including health and education; the truly obscene gap between rich and poor; and given a poverty rate that's one of the highest in the developed world, Israel needs full-scale resuscitation.

That is what Amir Peretz has promised. Whether if elected as prime minister he would be able to fulfill that promise is, of course, an open question.

For now, the question is not whether he would be able to, but whether he'll be permitted to – whether his combination of ambition and bluntness, of zeal and social purpose that have brought him this far, will enable him to survive the sniping that is bound to occur. Remember: The ex-generals who oppose him may not know how to govern, but they do know how to shoot.

Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.



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