Union Leader's Victory Marks Beginning of Working Class Politics in Israel

When I interviewed Amir Peretz, the leader of the Histadrut, Israel's national trade union federation, back in June 2005, I mentioned to him that I thought it was pretty unusual for a trade unionist to announce his candidacy for the post of prime minister. "I actually know of several additional examples of workers' leaders who became heads of government," he responded, "such as Bob Hawke in Australia, Lech Walesa in Poland, and Lula in Brazil."

In other words, in normal countries, trade union leaders sometimes become leaders of political parties and even heads of government. But Israel, until now, has not been a normal country.

Yesterday, Peretz stunned political pundits everywhere by defeating veteran Labour Party leader Shimon Peres and capturing the leadership of the party. Peretz has been described by one Israeli journalist as the country's "last social democrat." He is more typically described as a fiery and charismatic trade union leader -- and denounced by his opponents as being "divisive", a "populist" and a "demagogue".

Regardless of what one thinks, Peretz's victory has hit the Israeli political scene like a category 5 hurricane.

To understand why this is the case, one has to step back and understand what Israeli politics has been like for the past four decades. Since 1967, Israelis have defined themselves as "hawks" and "doves", those who believed in giving up territory for peace and those who did not. Peretz is certainly a "dove", but his appeal, his base of support, has little to do with his views on the peace process.

Peretz is attempting to redefine Israeli politics along totally different lines -- class lines. Five months ago, he told me: "If in the elections of 2006, as I hope will be case, will be between Labour with me at the head and the Likud headed up by Netanyahu, that will be the first time that these two world views stand as a clear choice in Israel -- the public will need to decide between the way of peace and social justice which I represent, and political extremism and right-wing economics which Netanyahu represents."



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When he said this, polls indicated that he would place last in the list of candidates then running to capture the leadership of the Labour Party. By the beginning of this week, with nearly all the candidates (including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak) having thrown their support behind the 82-year-old Shimon Peres, it seemed to nearly everyone that Amir Peretz's dream of a realignment of Israeli politics along class lines would never be realized. Everyone except Peretz, that is. Peretz and his hard-core followers, activists in workers' councils and trade unions, were convinced that the former mayor of a development town, the leader of numerous strikes and mass protests, could tap into a deep-felt sense of injustice in a country where the gap between rich and poor has never been wider.

They turned out to be right. This week, working-class districts within the 100,000 member Labour Party voted overwhelmingly for Peretz. He won easily in places like Afula and Beersheba, poor and working-class towns where the right-wing Likud party has dominated for a generation. Shimon Peres on the other hand found his support in places like Ra'anana and Kfar Saba -- middle-class towns which have backed Labour in recent years.

Peretz's first act as leader of the Labour Party was to go to grave of Yitzhak Rabin -- who was murdered ten years ago exactly -- and to reaffirm his conviction that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible. Peretz was a founder of the "Peace Now" movement and has long been a supporter of an independent Palestinian state. He calls the occupation of the West Bank "immoral". As leader of the Histadrut, he has led efforts to build bridges between Israeli and Palestinian unions.

He also announced that he would be meeting with Ariel Sharon shortly to announce the withdrawal of the Labour Party from the ruling national unity government. This will almost certainly trigger early elections in the beginning of 2006.

If, as is expected, former Finance Minister Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu takes over the Likud, Israel will be faced with its starkest choice ever. On the side, a social democratic trade union leader committed to social justice and peace with the Palestinians. On the other, the man most responsible for the collapse of the Oslo accords and the widening social gap and increasing poverty within Israel. As Peretz himself says, this is the first time Israelis have had such a clear choice.

I guess in other countries, this wouldn't be such a big deal. But in Israel it marks the end of decades of paralysis, and the chance of redefining what it means to be left and right. Amir Peretz has shown that he can attract the support of people who traditionally voted for the right-wing Likud. His election this week may mean much more than a simple change of leadership of the Israel Labour Party. By transforming Israeli politics, it could conceivably mark the beginning of the end of the long war between Israelis and Palestinians as well.

Eric Lee is the editor of the global trade union news service LabourStart.