Peretz, Amir (1952–)
Amir Peretz is an Israeli politician who was deputy prime minister and defense minister in the coalition government of ehud olmert from 2006 to 2007. He spent much of his political career fighting for worker's rights and social welfare. He was a trade union activist and served as the head of the Histadrut, Israel's trade union federation, for ten years. He became the leader of the Labor Party in Israel in an upset victory over shimon peres in the leadership contest of November 2005. The party ousted him as leader in May 2007, and he resigned as Olmert's defense minister the following month.
Peretz was born 9 March 1952 in Boujad, Morocco, in the Middle Atlas mountain region. His given name was Armand, which was later changed to Amiram and then to the more modern Amir. He was born into a prominent Moroccan Jewish family and his father was the head of the Jewish community in Boujad.
In 1956, when he was four, his family immigrated to Israel, part of the first wave of emigration from Morocco to the recently established State of Israel. His family settled in Sderot, a new "development" town in the Negev region in the south of the country, close to the Gaza Strip. Like other development towns that were established for the settlement of new immigrants, mostly Jews from North Africa and the Middle East (known as Sephardim or Mizrahim [Easterners]), Sderot was poor, located on Israel's periphery, away from the country's economic and population centers.
Peretz grew up in Sderot and attended the local high school. His father worked in a factory on a kibbutz and his mother in a laundry. After graduating high school, he carried out his compulsory military service in the paratroopers division, attaining the rank of captain. In 1974 he was badly injured when a military vehicle he was repairing crushed his leg. For the next two years, he underwent a long process of rehabilitation, was bedridden for a year and then confined to a wheelchair. Despite his doctors' prediction, he was able to walk again.
While still in a wheelchair, Peretz bought a farm in Moshav Nir Akiva near his hometown of Sderot and grew vegetables for export. It was there that he met his wife Ahlama Zarhiani. During this time, Peretz started to become actively involved in the labor movement. He began campaigning for workers' rights, as well as for peace—issues that would remain at the top of his political agenda for years to come. As Peretz became involved in local politics in Sderot, he returned to live there, and has lived there ever since.
In 1983, at age thirty, on the advice of a friend, Peretz ran as candidate of the Labor Party for head of Sderot Local Council. Peretz won an upset victory ending the town's long domination by the right-wing Likud bloc. As mayor of Sderot, Peretz promoted urban investment, improvements in local education, and increasing employment. He also took stands on national issues, campaigning against settlement building in the Palestinian territories, and supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state. These were highly controversial positions at that time.
Entry into National Politics
Peretz entered national politics in 1988 when he was elected to the twelfth Knesset as a member of the Labor Party. He became a member of "the eight," a group of eight young Labor Knesset members led by Yossi Beilin, and which also included Avraham Burg and Haim Ramon, who advocated a more dovish Labor policy toward Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. They favored a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.
In 1994, together with Ramon, Peretz challenged the Labor Party's longtime control over the Histadrut, Israel's powerful trade union federation. Running against the Labor Party in the Histadrut leadership elections, their independent list won, and Ramon became chair of the Histadrut and Peretz his deputy. Ramon, however, stepped down from the position the following year when he joined the Labor government after the assassination of Prime Minister yitzhak rabin. In December 1995 Peretz was chosen to replace Ramon as chair of the Histadrut and he was twice reelected to the position, in 1998 and 2002.
As head of the Histadrut, Peretz became a well-known public figure in Israel. He gained the image of a leader for the working class. In his first term as Histadrut chair, he was an outspoken and combative leader who frequently clashed with the government over its neoliberal economic agenda involving privatization and cuts in public sector employment. He fiercely defended the deficit-ridden public sector in Israel and supported many strikes by local trade unions. He led numerous general strikes and long-term sanctions ("go-slow" strikes) to protest things such as the failure to pay municipal workers' salaries for months. Peretz also attempted to reform the Histadrut itself, which over the years had become increasingly unwieldy and inefficient.
Name: Amir Peretz
Birth: 1952, Boujad, Morocco
Family: Wife, Ahlama; four children, Ohad, Shani, Iftah, Matan
Education: Sderot High School
- 1983: Elected head of Sderot Local Council
- 1988: Elected to Knesset for the Labor Party
- 1995–2005: Chair, Histadrut Trade Union Federation
- 1999: Resigns from Labor Party, founds Am Ehad (One Nation) Party
- 2004: Merges Am Ehad with Labor Party
- 2005–2007: Chair, Labor Party
- 2006–2007: Deputy prime minister, minister of defense
Later in his tenure, Peretz became more moderate. The number and frequency of strikes decreased, and Peretz focused more on trying to win over public opinion and policy makers. He campaigned for a number of disadvantaged and underprivileged groups, such as the disabled and single mothers. He also campaigned, without success, for a higher minimum wage.
In 1999 Peretz left the Labor Party to form a new party, Am Ehad (One Nation) with a social democratic platform focusing on social welfare issues. The party won two seats in the Knesset elections of 1999, and three seats in the elections of 2003. The party remained outside the government following both elections. Peretz nevertheless gained popularity with the poor and working class as an opponent of free-market economic reform policies, especially those pursued by binyamin netanyahu during his tenure as Israel's finance minister (2003–2005), which involved privatization of public services and companies and severe welfare cuts.
Leader of the Labor Party
In 2004 Peretz's Am Ehad Party merged with Labor. After the merger, Peretz began campaigning for the leadership of the Labor Party. His platform emphasized social justice, antipoverty programs, and welfare. He called for Labor to return to its former social democratic, progressive orientation, and to withdraw from the coalition government with ariel sharon's Likud Party. In the contest for party leadership, the incumbent, party stalwart, former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shimon Peres was considered to be the strong favorite. Peretz was seen as an outsider, not part of the Ashkenazi (European Jewish) elite who ran the party.
When the party election occurred in November 2005, however, Peretz scored an upset victory, narrowly beating Peres. As the new leader, he pulled the party out of the government coalition. This move deprived the Sharon government of its Knesset majority and led to a general election in March 2006. Peretz resigned from his position as Histadrut leader and concentrated on his campaign to become prime minister.
In the March 2006 election, the Labor Party won nineteen Knesset seats, coming in second to the new centrist Kadima Party led by Ehud Olmert, who took over the party after Sharon's stroke in January 2006. After coalition negotiations, Labor agreed to join a Kadima-led coalition government with Olmert as prime minister. Peretz tried unsuccessfully for the Ministry of Finance, but instead accepted the job of defense minister, a position that could potentially have improved his credentials in a politically crucial area. He was also made deputy prime minister.
Peretz's appointment as defense minister was a surprise to many, as he was not a former general and was best known for his commitment to social issues. While some worried whether Peretz had the right credentials for this important and prestigious post, others hoped that he would cut the country's large defense budget (as he had promised voters in the run-up to the election), and pursue less aggressive military tactics against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Defying this hope, however, Peretz, a longtime dove, supported more bellicose actions and policies as defense minister. In particular, he enthusiastically backed Prime Minister Olmert in waging war against the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbullah in July 2006, in response to Hizbullah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers inside Israel on 12 July 2006.
The monthlong war between Israel and Hizbullah, in which more than one thousand people (mostly Lebanese civilians) were killed and over a million (Lebanese and Israeli civilians) displaced, ended inconclusively. Olmert and Peretz were severely criticized for mishandling the war and many Israelis demanded their resignations. Peretz's domestic popularity greatly declined, and many of his former supporters on the left were bitterly disappointed with him over his role in what they regarded as a costly, misguided war. As a result, in the next election for the leadership of the Labor Party, Peretz was defeated in the first round of voting held on 28 May 2007. Following that, he resigned as defense minister on 15 June 2007.
I INTEND TO TRAVEL TOWARDS PEACE
In 1977 Menachem Begin, who then stood at the head of the Likud, created a revolution and removed the Labour Party from power. Begin's revolution was a social revolution, based on promises of social change and on giving a feeling of belonging to the working class, which felt that the Labour Party was alienated from them. Begin carried out a social revolution, but used the "train ticket" he received from the people to travel to the occupied Palestinian territories.
I would like to be the Menachem Begin of the Labour Party, to return to it the social values and the support of the people. If I receive from the people the same "train ticket" that they once gave to Begin, I intend to travel with it towards peace.
AMIR PERETZ, IN LEE, ERIC. "INTERVIEW WITH AMIR PERETZ, LEADER OF THE HISTADRUT AND CANDIDATE FOR HEAD OF THE ISRAEL LABOUR PARTY." LABOURSTART, 12 JUNE 2005. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.LABOURSTART.ORG.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Peretz was influenced by the progressive social vision of traditional Labor Zionism. Labor Zionist ideology espoused a combination of socialism and Jewish nationalism and sought to create an egalitarian society. The modern Labor Party has its origins in the Labor Zionist movement, but over the decades it has abandoned Labor Zionism's socialist economic program and commitment to egalitarianism. Peretz tried to return the party to its social democratic roots. He wanted to maintain the welfare state in Israel and defend the interests of workers and the poor.
Peretz's opposition to neoliberal economic reforms was also influenced by traditional European social democratic ideas, and the development of a "third way" political-economic approach (pioneered by Tony Blair in the United Kingdom) that attempts to reconcile an expanding free-market economy with social solidarity and the continued provision of public services.
Peretz succeeded in bringing greater public attention to rising social inequality and the plight of the poor and the working class, and thus helped place social issues higher on the Israeli political agenda. He did not, however, bring about a significant change in Israel's socioeconomic policies, which continue to be strongly neoliberal and market-oriented.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Peretz came to international attention only when he became defense minister in the Olmert government. His appointment was greeted with some skepticism abroad because of his lack of military credentials, in contrast to many of Israel's previous defense ministers. He is best known internationally for his role in overseeing Israel's war with Hizbullah in July 2006. Since many people inside and outside Israel were critical of Israel's conduct of this war, international perceptions of Peretz became more negative; he was seen to be a weak, inexperienced, and ineffective defense minister.
Peretz's chief legacy is likely to be his demonstration that it is possible to rise to the top in Israel from a lowly social background. Peretz showed that a Mizrahi Jew from a poor development town on Israel's periphery could become leader of the traditionally Ashkenazi-dominated Labor Party. This helped dispel the party's longstanding image as the party of the Ashkenazi intellectual and economic elite. Under Peretz's leadership, the Labor Party received greater support from working- and lower-middle-class voters, who were attracted by Peretz's emphasis on welfare and social issues.
By attaining the position of defense minister, arguably the second most important political post in Israel, Peretz also challenged the view that only former generals and others with impressive military credentials could lead the state's powerful defense establishment. The widespread criticisms of his performance in this role, however, renewed the belief of many Israelis that the position should be occupied only by someone with extensive military experience. Peretz's political accomplishments were overshadowed by his poor performance as defense minister and his role in the perceived failure of Israel's 2006 war with Hizbullah.
Lee, Eric. "Interview with Amir Peretz, Leader of the Histadrut and Candidate for Head of the Israel Labour Party." LabourStart, 12 June 2005. Available from http://www.labourstart.org.
Pappe, Ilan. "The Disappointing Trajectory of Amir Peretz." London Review of Books 27, no. 24 (15 December 2005). Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk.