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Biography of Amir Peretz

Amir Peretz (Pronounced "Ameer Peretz"- in Hebrew עמיר פרץ) was born as Armand Peretz in  Bojad, Morocco on March 1952. His family came on Aliya (immigration) to Israel in 1956 and settled in Sderot, a Negev development town. After graduating high school, he served in the IDF paratroopers, attaining the rank of Captain. In the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, Peretz was severely wounded in the battle of Mitleh pass and spent a year in convalescence. He became a farmer in Nir Akiva while still confined to a wheelchair. He met his wife Ahlama there. They have four children.   He was elected leader of Israel Labor Party in an upset victory over Shimon Peres  in primary elections on November 9, 2005.  In 1983 Peretz  ran for mayor of Sderot, a small border town in the Negev, later famous as the target of Qassam rockets launched from nearby Gaza. Peretz ran as candidate of the Israel Labor  Party, in a town that had been dominated by the Likud and National Religious Party (NRP. At age thirty he won an upset victory, ending the reign of the right. He promoted investment in education and worked to improve relations with nearby kibbutzim.. Peretz's vision was not limited to local politics.  He was an early member of the Peace Now movement.

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In 1988 Peretz  was elected to the Knesset. He was a member of "the eight," a group of eight Labor party Knesset representatives led by Yossi Beilin, who advocated a dovish Labor party policy on peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

In 1994, Peretz joined with Haim Ramon in a bid to win control of  the still powerful but aging, corrupt and unwieldy Histadrut labor confederation. Their independent list won. Peretz became Ramon's deputy in the Histadrut, and was isolated from the rest of the Labor Party. Ramon and Peretz oversaw sweeping reforms in the Histadrut, which rebuilt itself after losing tight control of its health service.

Peretz became chairman of the Histadrut in December 1995, when Ramon returned to the government after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Peretz provided fearless and outspoken leadership, calling general strikes or long-term sanctions ("go-slow" strikes), often to protest blatant injustices such as failure to pay municipality workers for months, but sometimes over minor trade-union issues. In recent years however, he acquiesced in regressive economic policies. He protested them, and spoke against them, but he did not call out the workers, who were weakened by poor economic performance and the Intifadeh. He quipped. "the most effective strike is a strike that didn't happen".

Increasingly isolated within the Labor party, in 1999 Peretz resigned to form the Am Ehad ("One Nation") party, which garnered two seats in the Knesset in the general election of 1999, and three in 2003.As a defender of the poor against heartless "market economy" policies of the Likud government,  Peretz gained popularity with the poor and working classes. In contrast, the Labor party itself was in and out of coalition governments with Ariel Sharon's Likud, where they acquiesced in tax cuts and draconic cuts in services to the poor and education.  Peretz used his popularity to leverage his way back into the Labor party, merging Am Ehad with Labor in the summer of 2004.

After the merger, Peretz began campaigning for leadership of the Labor Party. His platform called for ending the coalition with Likud, led by Ariel Sharon,  returning to Labor's traditional progressive orientation and social concerns, and ending the occupation. Experts explained that Peretz, an outsider, had no chance of defeating established Labor party leaders. He was not a general in the IDF or a keystone of Israeli defense. He was not one of the inner circle of the party. He was from Morocco, unlike the majority of European Jewish leaders, the "elite" who ran the Labor party. Support for Peretz mounted steadily however, though rivals accused him of packing the party registration rolls. Up until the time the final ballot count on the morning of November 10, 2005,  most pundits were predicting an easy victory for 82 year old party stalwart, former Prime Minister and Nobel peace prize winner Shimon Peres, a man of accomplishments and renown. However, when the ballots were in,  Peretz had narrowly beaten Peres, garnering 42% of the votes versus 40% for Shimon Peres and 17% for former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Peretz immediately announced plans to pull the Labor party out of the coalition government, which would precipitate general elections, perhaps as early as March, 2006. 

Peretz is strongly committed to social issues and to the strengthening of social services. He also favors ending the occupation, which he believes is immoral and a corrupting influence on Israel,. and is one of the signatories of the Geneva Accord. He seeks to overturn the major and complementary paradoxes of Israeli political life. The Labor party has for many years been the party of the intellectual and economic elite, while the poor supported the rightist Likud party and hawkish policies toward Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries.

In an in June of 2005 by Eric Lee of Labourstart, Peretz explained,

 ..the traditional difference between 'left' and 'right' has been distorted by the occupation... Today, an Israeli doesn't identify himself as 'left' or 'right' because of their views on subjects like taxation, for example, but because of their  views regarding a Palestinian state and a peace settlement. As a result, there has been created in Israel a strange situation in which the lower classes and the working class tend to support the parties of the right, and the upper class tends to support the left. Not only does this prevent the left from having a decent chance at winning elections, but it has also caused the concept of peace to become an elitist product, identified with factory owners and not with factory workers.

I see this as the main problem that needs to concern all those who seek peace in Israel and abroad. The Israel Labour Party has in fact adopted in recent years a right-wing socio-economic policy which almost doesn't differ from that of Netanyahu and the Likud, and for that reason fell apart in the last elections.

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.

A hundred years ago, Zionist Socialist Ber Borochov  understood that obviously, there could never be a Zionist movement without the support of the Jewish workers and poor, who constitute the bulk of the people. Peretz is communicating the even more obvious fact that escaped the intellectuals of the Labor party: you cannot have a Labor party without workers. He is gambling that support for the Likud was due only to economic and social issues, a questionable assumption.

Analysts are predicting that Peretz's win will revolutionize Israeli politics, by revitalizing the Labor party. If that is so, it will revitalize the labor Zionist movement again and change Zionism. The rise of Amir Peretz destroys many cliches about Israeli politics and Zionism, and disproves several things that "everybody knew" to be true. Anti-Zionists will find it hard to support their caricature of Israel and Zionism dominated by European Jewish elitists who repress Sephardi Jews, and of reactionary and hawkish policies and "Messianic Zionism" supported by these same Sephardi Jews. All of these slogans and assumptions are proving to be somewhat mythological.

On the evening of his primary win, Israel experts explained that a Peretz victory would spell disaster for the Israel Labor party, and that its supporters would desert in droves to rival parties headed by Europeans. However, a poll on the following day showed that Labor would gain an addition 6 to 8 seats if elections were held then.

Peretz became Labor party head and served as defense minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, despite having no experience in the field. Peretz, along with Olmert and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, were blamed for the errors of the second Lebanon war. In Labor party primaries held May 28, 2007, Peretz was defeated in the first round, and was eventually replaced by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Ami Isseroff

More Israeli and Zionist Biographies The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

Related:

Labourstart interview with Labor Party Leader Amir Peretz

Forum Discussion - election of Amir Peretz as head of the Labor Party

Red October of Amir Peretz - New Hope for the Israeli Left

Labor Zionism

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