It was just a year ago that the Labour party membership elected Amir Peretz as their leader. He was given a tremendous ovation with the exception of Shimon Peres – a case of sour grapes, who resigned from the party soon afterwards to join the Kadima Party. He took with him Dalia Itzik (the present speaker of the Knesset) and Chaim Ramon (under investigation for sexual harassment and former Justice Minister in the Kadima coalition). The Labour Party, prior to the 29th March 2006 Elections, made its social agenda and peace its platform for election. They failed dismally and made no significant inroads in the electoral vote. All that remained was to form a coalition with Kadima in order to maintain some sort of a power base. Instead of going into opposition and rebuilding, they accepted the coalition guidelines of Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz became Minister of Defense – a post for which he is ill-suited. Olmert knew this and the gut feeling is that he did this in order to neutralize Amir Peretz. He knew that this would be his downfall. He succeeded in that.
It is over six months since the elections and much has happened. Amir Peretz had to handle decision making in the Lebanese War as an inexperienced Defense Minister. This was short of a disaster! Now to add insult to injury, he has swallowed a toad as well as his principles as one who cares for the weaker sectors of Israeli society by agreeing to serve in a government with Avigdor Lieberman, the extreme right-winger of the late Rehavim Ze’evi mould. The latter was the architect of the idea of “voluntary” transfer of the Arabs to the Arab Countries. Now that Lieberman is joining the coalition, Amir Peretz will be sitting with this demagogue of anti-Arab platitudes in the same coalition. By this action, many feel that he has betrayed his supporters who voted for him and his party because of its commitment to a social agenda that is friendly to the under-privileged and the revival of the Peace Process with the Palestinians.
Now, there is neither social agenda nor peace process! The latter perhaps is unattainable now because of the Hamas attitude towards Israel and its own problems with Fatah. Nevertheless, the excuse is that Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party is prepared to accept the coalition guidelines that are incumbent on all the coalition members. This assumption is open to debate. Lieberman has no guidelines except his own for his own personal political advancement and influence on his supporters.
Ze’ev Sternhel of Ha’aretz 27th October 2006 puts it concisely in his article “A Lethal Combination”:
“Because it betrayed all its promises, from the convergence plan to repairing society, and thus finds itself in serious distress, the governmental elite are now calling for help from the most dangerous politician we have ever had in Israel. Rehavim Ze'evi was also a racist whose "legacy" is a disgrace to Israeli society, but he did not have the benefit of a power base such as the one that Avigdor Lieberman has consolidated. This base does not consist only of the Russian-speaking community; Lieberman also has the ability, through the power of xenophobia and by slinging mud at the Knesset and the Supreme Court, to mobilize the frustrations of the lower middle class. In the past, this role was reserved for the Likud, but Benjamin Netanyahu's movement today represents the interests of the bourgeoisie, rather than those of the weaker sectors. Lieberman caught this wave even before the war, but now he is exploiting his success in order to fill the vacuum that has been created by the center's moral collapse.”
If Amir Peretz does decide to sit with Avigdor Lieberman in the Olmert Coalition, it will cause a split in Labour Party ranks. It is hard to imagine people like Prof. Yuli Tamir, Prof. Ishai Braverman and Ofer Pines sitting with right-wing Lieberman. There is no doubt that the Labour Party has let its supporters down. All for the sake of tidbits that are worthless! All tidbits that are gained by sacrificing one’s ideology and principles will boomerang on the Labour Party and its leadership in the next elections. It seems that the Labour Party is undergoing a total ideological collapse. It will not have the strength to offer the electorate a clean alternative to the political morass that exists in the Kadima-led coalition. Labour members, such as Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, will support the coalition as they wish to retain their power base at all cost. Ben-Eliezer feels that he could sway the coalition into a more moderate stance. That is dreaming! It is never possible for a junior coalition partner to sway the majority coalition partner in matters of policy. It does not work that way in politics. The Labour Party is too weak for having that kind of influence as there are many potential coalition partners waiting in the shadows to take its place when the opportunity arises. The Torah Judaism Party and even the Likud are potential partners that could replace Labour.
According to Haaretz, in an editorial of 28th October 2006, Amir Peretz promised his voters that he would not sit in the same government with Lieberman. This promise was made shortly before the elections, when many voters were debating over whether to support the Labor Party. Unlike other promises, which are hard to insist upon when one is part of a coalition, this is a promise that should be easy to carry out. Had the Labor Party threatened to pull out from the coalition, Lieberman would not have been able to join. Peretz proved unable even to carry out this minor task, and bought his continued role as partial defense minister at an exorbitant cost. But perhaps the Labor Central Committee will yet prove that party institutions are valuable as critics of the leadership and guardians of the flame, and will prevent this damaging move, whose sole purpose is to preserve the cabinet members' jobs.
Now that the die is cast and the possibility of a reversal of that decision by Olmert is almost zero, Amir Peretz could still salvage himself and the Labour Party by leaving the coalition and going into opposition. It is unfortunate that the opposition is divided between extreme right and left wing factions that have nothing in common to form an alternate government to the Olmert-Lieberman coalition. This is where Labour could play an important role by uniting with the moderate left-of-centre elements such as Meretz. They could strengthen their commitments to a proper social friendly programme for the weaker segments of society and the direction of the future peace process which today is moribund. They would then gain back the credibility of their voters that will leave Labour in droves because of this narrow-sighted decision of remaining in the Olmert-Lieberman Coalition.