Siegman: Election of Peretz to Head Labor Party a Political ‘Earthquake’ in Israel

November 14, 2005

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Henry Siegman, director of the Council’s U.S./Middle East Project, says the election of Amir Peretz as the new head of Israel’s  Labor Party, is “potentially very significant” for Israeli politics. Not only is Peretz pledging to quit the government coalition headed by Likud’s Ariel Sharon, but he is placing great emphasis on working with the Palestinian Authority in furthering moves toward peace. 

“He rejects the idea that the peace process should be put on hold pending an end to all violence and terrorism,” says Siegman. “He also opposes other conditions attached by the Sharon to a resumption of peace talks, such as a thorough-going reform of the Palestinian Authority and the development of a truly democratic political system. Peretz’s position is that it is in Israel’s own interest to resume a peace process unconditionally.”

In the Labor Party elections last week, Amir Peretz defeated Shimon Peres for leadership of the party. How significant is this?

It is potentially very significant, for two reasons. First, in recent years the Labor Party has ceased to function as a genuine opposition party because the head of the party, Shimon Peres and its key leadership, perhaps eight or so people, have served in the government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Labor Party said it joined the Likud government to facilitate Sharon’s planned disengagement from Gaza, and would leave immediately afterwards. But it did not leave, and Peres decided to stay in the government.

So, the first important aspect of this so called “earthquake”  is that the Labor Party now has a new leader who has announced that his party  is withdrawing from the Likud [government] and will function once again as an opposition party.  That is undeniably a very good thing, because a democratic system that doesn’t have an opposition party is not a healthy democracy.

What is even more interesting is that this new leader of the Labor Party is committed to a genuine pro-peace policy. He rejects the idea that the peace process should be put on hold pending an end to all violence and terrorism. He also opposes other conditions attached by Sharon to a resumption of peace talks, such as a thorough-going reform of the Palestinian Authority and the development of a truly democratic political system. Peretz’s position is that it is in Israel’s own interest to resume a peace process unconditionally. Shortly after he was elected as head of the Labor Party, he stated that if he were elected prime minister, he would immediately invite Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to begin peace negotiations. His election, which of course was not to the premiership but to the Labor Party, at least holds open the possibility that if the Labor Party won a general election and he becomes prime minister, there would be a radically different Israeli approach to the peace process.

Talk about Sharon’s reaction to this. Sharon has his own problems with his party and it’s unclear if he will even be nominated by the Likud to head their party in the election.  

That’s correct. And there is speculation in Israel that Sharon has two options. One is to leave the party rather than engaging Netanyahu in a fight for the leadership of the party in advance of the next elections. Instead, he would form a new right-of-center party which might include Shimon Peres and other Labor Party leaders currently in his government  

The other option, of course, is that he would contest for the leadership of the Likud in the next Likud primaries.

With the election of Amir Peretz as head of Labor, the newest thinking among Israeli pundits is that Sharon is likely to stay in the Likud and take on Netanyahu rather than form a new party, which a Peretz-led Labor Party would not join. 

Does anyone have any real idea who could win an election straight up between Labor and Likud with [Labor’s] new leadership?

There was a poll taken a day or two after the Labor elections, and the result of that poll was that the party headed by Sharon would be the largest vote getter.

So what does that tell us? That the Israeli public still wants a hard line with the Palestinians?

It tells us that Sharon still continues to enjoy considerable popularity and support in Israel, but whether this will be sustained in the coming weeks and months is not clear.  The polls have already found a very significant resurgence of support for the Labor Party. The question is whether Amir Peretz can unite the Labor Party and appeal to Israel’s lower economic classes who have been hardcore Likud supporters. These people abandoned the Labor Party years ago, and now feel betrayed by the Likud because of its pro-business policies and its dismantlement of social welfare programs. The question is whether Peretz can bring these people back into the Labor Party, because bread and butter economic issues will be more important to them than the peace process.

Is Peretz the first Sephardic Jew to rise this high in politics?

He is the first Sephardi to head the Labor Party. Therefore potentially he is the first Sephardi candidate for prime minister in the coming elections.

Democratically, what does that mean? Are the Sephardis still a minority in Israel?

The Sephardis don’t vote as a bloc. Sephardis constitute roughly half the Jewish population in Israel [Sephardic Jews come from Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East], and are to be found in all parties. But the majority has in recent years voted Likud and Shass (the religious Sephardic party).

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the area right now and she’s been trying to work out a compromise that would open up the check points in Gaza.

She is. The Karni checkpoint is the one by which goods into and out of Gaza are transported; it is the crossing point used only for commercial purposes. There are two other checkpoints, one in Rafah, which is the crossing point into Egypt, and the other in Erez, the crossing into Israel.  Even the very diplomatic U.S. negotiator, James Wolfensohn, finally lost his patience the other day and expressed criticism of Israel’s leaders for dragging their feet on the crossings issue, which he considers to be absolutely critical. He said that if it’s not resolved quickly, the possibility for an economic recovery in Gaza will have been lost.

I did see some story that the Israelis are now going to issue work permits.

Yes, the say they will allow a small number of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank to enter Israel. They are talking about very small numbers, something like 3,000 workers from Gaza and 8,000 from the West Bank. This compares to 150,000 Palestinians who worked in Israel before the intifada.

What is the problem on the checkpoints? Is it purely security from Israel’s point of view?  

From Israel’s point of view it is security, and they insist on security arrangements at the Rafah crossing into Egypt that  Palestinians will not accept, because these arrangements are inconsistent with Israel’s departure from Gaza. If there is any kind of violence in the territories, Israel’s policy is to shut down the crossing points. Wolfensohn, who is a long time friend and financial supporter of Israel, has said that Gaza is in danger of being turned into a massive prison.

When you talked about the political earthquake in Israel regarding the Labor Party elections, how do you explain the defeat of Peres?

Peres would like to know that too. It’s really hard to say why Peres, a man who has played so an important role in the life of the country, has this long and extraordinary history of electoral defeat.

He’s never been elected Prime Minister, right?

You’re right, he never won a single race for the prime minister-ship. However, he did serve as prime minister on two separate occasions, once when he took over after Rabin was assassinated, and the other time, when he shared the premiership with the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, because neither Labor nor Likud was able to form a government.  

Is there any chance Peres will join Sharon?

One can’t rule that out. Peretz asked Peres for a clear statement of loyalty for the Labor Party. Peres has yet to make such an unequivocal statement.

What are the chances of Sharon losing to Netanyahu?

That is a possibility that cannot be precluded.

Netanyahu would probably lose in a popular election to Peretz I suppose?

The polls indicated that the Likud, led by Netanyahu would do far more poorly running against Peretz. He would do poorly running against any Labor opposition, but he would do poorly especially against Peretz because Netanyahu is the only leader the lower economic strata in Israel is very angry at because he dismantled many of the social programs in Israel. These people see Peretz as a tough union leader who always fought for them.

Talk very briefly about the economic situation in Israel. Is it a really tough situation in Israel?

The gap between the poor and the wealthy is the largest in the Western world.

More than in theUnited States?

Yes, more than in the United States. Israel started out as one of the most egalitarian societies, and today boasts the largest gap between rich and poor in the Western world.

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