Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 7 News List

New Labor leader shakes up Israeli politics

REBRANDING Amir Peretz has stunned critics by changing the party's image into the voice for the downtrodden and shifting the focus from war to the workers' plight

AP , JERUSALEM

The new chairman of the Israeli Labor Party, Amir Peretz, welcomes several Israeli mayors during a reception at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv on Thursday to set a start point for the Labor election campaign.

PHOTO: EPA

In just one week as Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz has upended Israeli politics, crushing dissent in his fractious party and forcing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to early elections.

The rise of Peretz, a Moroccan-born Jew with only a high school education, also represented an ethnic upheaval for Labor, which has long been dominated by Jews of European descent.

Initially dismissed as a populist firebrand, Peretz stunned critics by rebranding Labor as the voice of the downtrodden and shifting Israel's political debate from the conflict with the Palestinians onto taxes, worker rights and the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Peretz, the country's top union leader, re-energized a Labor Party that had grown increasingly weak and was in danger of disintegrating into irrelevance, Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the daily Yediot Ahronot, said on Friday.

"With Amir maybe they will be buried also, but it will be a much more interesting and lively burial," he said.

After seizing control of Labor on Nov. 9 in a surprise primary victory over 82-year-old veteran politician Shimon Peres, Peretz, 53, immediately began forcing his will on everyone from recalcitrant party leaders to the prime minister.

Early elections

Cabinet ministers whispered of a revolt when Peretz demanded the party pull out of the coalition government and force early elections.

Refusing to back down, he burst into their offices and forced them to sign undated letters of resignation, according to Israeli media reports.

Sharon also dismissed his calls for an early election, but by the time the two men met on Thursday, the prime minister's coalition was crumbling and he agreed to call a vote by the end of March, eight months ahead of schedule.

"[Peretz] is out to win and in a big way. So it was important for him to prove from the very first week that he's the boss,'' political analyst Yoel Marcus wrote in the Haaretz daily.

Labor leaders hope Peretz will appeal to disenfranchised Jews of Middle Eastern descent, who bitterly abandoned the party decades ago.

But Peretz could also repel immigrants from Russia -- never traditional Labor voters -- who view him as a Bolshevik, look down on his Moroccan roots and fear he will be too accommodating to the Palestinians, Barnea said.

Revival

Before Peretz, political analysts were preparing obituaries for Labor, the party that led Israel for its first three decades.

They contended that Labor lacked a clear message and did not present itself as a viable alternative to Sharon's hardline Likud.

Labor remained in Sharon's coalition though it opposed the government's free-market policies, and Sharon's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip unilaterally stripped Labor of part of its peace platform.

Peretz quickly reframed the political debate, taking advantage of a lull in violence after five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting to focus on social issues and accuse Sharon's government of increasing poverty and social inequality.

He has advocated repairing Israel's frayed social safety net, with the centerpiece of his campaign a call to raise the monthly minimum wage to US$1,000 -- a demand that has the support of more than 80 percent of the public, according to two polls published on Friday.

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