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Backgrounder from Farmer to Labor Leader, Peretz is Israel’s New Powerbroker

Israel’s new political powerbroker, Amir Peretz, is a former farmer without a college education — but he brings a hard-earned understanding of the growing underclass in the Jewish state. Peretz, 53, who unseated Shimon Peres as Labor Party chief in a stunning primary upset Thursday, is cut from a different cloth than the Israeli elder statesman. Unlike most Labor leaders, he is far from the Ashkenazi elite — a Moroccan-born immigrant who eked out a living raising vegetables before heeding the call of politics.

Peretz’s career in public service began in Sderot, the hardscrabble Negev desert town that arose from a transit camp where new Sephardi immigrants such as Peretz and his family were settled and promptly forgotten. In 1983, Peretz ran for mayor on the Labor ticket and won.

Five years later Peretz won a seat in the Knesset, where he distinguished himself as a champion of the underprivileged. His brash style and Stalinesque mustache, in many eyes, were appropriate for a man with his militant socialist agenda.

In 1995 Peretz became chairman of the powerful Histadrut trade union federation, waging battles against government plans to privatize and cut public sector budgets. His biggest rival was to be Benjamin Netanyahu, the free-market crusader who served first as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and then as finance minister in the Sharon government.

Since 1999, Peretz has headed Am Echad (One People), a breakaway party from Labor with a primarily social agenda. But he allied the three-member faction with Labor as part of the current government coalition.

Peretz has called for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians on the basis of the “road map” peace plan, and says Israel must be prepared to carry out further withdrawals in the West Bank. This he describes as primarily a matter of self-interest, aimed at saving a Jewish state that he feels has become morally compromised by its rule over another people.

With no formal education beyond high school in Sderot, Peretz lacks the diplomatic polish of most Israeli statesmen, and is expected to cast around Labor for an electioneering partner who can make up for this. Though he served as an ordnance officer in the Israeli paratroopers, suffering a near-crippling injury during maneuvers in the Sinai in 1974, he is no security maven either.

Peretz is married to Ahlama, and has four sons and a daughter.

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