A mixed prognosis

The election of Amir Peretz to the leadership of the Labor Party is a potentially revolutionary event, both for Israeli politics and for the prospects of an Israeli- Palestinian peace process. But Peretz’s rise to power is likely to have a stronger effect on the first sphere than on the second.

Within the context of Israeli domestic politics, Peretz represents the ascension of Eastern Jewry (Jews originating in Muslim lands) from the grassroots to the leadership level of the secular majority. If Peretz succeeds, an Eastern Jew such as Silvan Shalom or Shaul Mofaz (rather than Binyamin Netanyahu) could well succeed Ariel Sharon as head of the Likud. Peretz also represents a very different socio-economic approach than that prevalent in recent years: he is a social democrat whose first concern is the lower working class strata and the alarming gap in Israel between haves and have-nots.

Peretz is not the first Eastern Jew to head Labor; he was preceded for a short term by Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer. But the latter is a retired general, like so many of Israel’s leading politicians. Here Peretz, a former development town mayor and accomplished labor union leader, also represents a unique departure in mainstream Israeli politics.

Peretz still has to persuade a lot of reluctant people on the economic periphery to vote for Labor: development town Eastern Jews whose support for Likud and disgust with Labor has in recent decades taken on the aura of a "tribal" ritual; Russian immigrants and impoverished Ashkenazi retirees who may not trust a North African Jew; and other traditional right wing or Shas (Sephardic ultra-orthodox) supporters who like Peretz’s economic ideas but shudder at his dovish approach to the Palestinian issue. All the while, he has to hold onto Labor’s traditional well-heeled, mainstream Ashkenazi voters.

Here we confront Peretz’s rather unique attempt to synthesize and integrate his domestic policies with his peace policies. He argues that economic impoverishment and hawkishness on peace issues are one and the same issue: that the anti-peace camp is spending money on settlements at the expense of jobs and development; that hostility toward Palestinians is the opium the right wing throws the masses to keep them quiet.

All this is unique and fascinating. But Peretz still has to "get elected", i.e., to lead Labor to major electoral gains, in order to solidify his new leadership position on the left. If he fails, as Amram Mitzna did three years ago with a similarly dovish Palestinian policy, his rivals for leadership within Labor will throw him out ruthlessly. (Note the irony: the frustrated Mitzna just resigned from the Knesset to devote himself to running a down-and-out Negev development town, Yerucham; Peretz began his career as mayor of Sderot, another such town.)

Assuming Peretz succeeds electorally, and with Sharon splitting the Likud, it is possible but far from certain that Labor will get the most votes and form the next government. One way or another, if Labor is in the governing coalition it will likely share rule with at least one center or center-right party that has more conservative ideas about dealing with the Palestinian issue than Peretz’s plan to enter immediately into negotiations regarding a final status agreement.

But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Peretz is Israel’s next prime minister and that he has a free hand to negotiate, we have to ask whether a final status agreement is possible at this juncture. Can Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas make the concessions regarding the right of return and Jerusalem that even Peretz will insist on? How do we factor in the influence of Hamas on Palestinian peacemaking, once it is enfranchised, represented in the Legislative Council and a part of the PLO, let alone the possible effect of ongoing terrorist violence sponsored by "spoilers" in Iran and Syria? Amir Peretz is an energetic and charismatic leader, but is he tough enough to dismantle dozens of West Bank settlements and remove tens of thousands of settlers in order to make good on his peace commitments?

This is not an election appeal for Ariel Sharon. But to the extent that Sharon represents a more gradual approach, spearheaded by unilateral Israeli measures or reasonable interim agreements (and it is questionable whether this indeed is Sharon’s approach) and managed by a very tough leader, it is worth considering whether, under current conditions, this does not offer better prospects for progress than a dash for a dramatic peace breakthrough.

For Amir Peretz to try and fail to make peace with the Palestinians could be less helpful to long-term peace prospects than another successful round of disengagement.