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Is Peretz up to the job?

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz stands with supporters after making a speech at a social issues conference Nov. 23, in Sederot. (Brian Hendler)

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz stands with supporters after making a speech at a social issues conference Nov. 23, in Sederot. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 3 (JTA) — Amir Peretz’s tenure as Labor leader started with a bang. Less than two months later, it’s in danger of ending with a whimper. In the two weeks after Peretz was installed as party chairman, polls showed Labor garnering around 28 of the 120 Knesset seats in the upcoming general elections, enough to have pundits suggesting that Peretz could become prime minister if he could build on that momentum. In the seven weeks since, however, it has been all downhill. The latest polls show Labor winning only 19 to 21 seats, about half the number forecast for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima Party. In private conversations, some Labor politicians express fears that it will get worse, and the party could fall to its worst electoral performance ever. Where did Peretz go wrong? And can he bounce back? Commentators say the tyro leader has made every mistake in the book. First he alienated Labor’s two living former prime ministers, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Peres left in a huff for Kadima, and some pundits say he may have taken up to seven seats with him. A late-December weekend poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper shows that nearly 20 percent of people not voting Labor say they might have reconsidered if Peres were still in the party. Barak does not have similar voter appeal, but if Peretz had brought him into a top leadership panel he could have provided the security and foreign policy gravitas that Peretz seems to lack. Peretz’s campaign strategy has been to focus on socio-economic issues such as the minimum wage, pensions, poverty and unemployment, hoping to steal the thunder from Sharon’s perceived security and foreign policy strengths. The strategy backfired. Instead of setting the agenda, Peretz’s socio-economic bias created the impression of a one-dimensional candidate who lacked the most important credentials for an Israeli prime minister — security and foreign-policy expertise. That situation was not helped when Peretz emerged from a recent meeting with Sharon complaining that all the prime minister could talk about was security. Peretz meant that Sharon seemed indifferent to economic distress, but the overriding impression was that Peretz himself had a deficient grasp of security matters in a country still plagued by terrorism. To give Peretz’s candidacy more weight, some top Labor politicians are suggesting that he visit Washington, where high-profile meetings with American leaders would show that he can hold his own in the diplomatic arena. However, Peretz says he has no intention of making the trip. All this points to Peretz’s biggest problem: Many Israelis won’t vote for him because they just don’t think he’s cut out to be prime minister. According to the Yediot poll, 40 percent of those who won’t vote Peretz say it’s because he wouldn’t be able to handle the top job. The corresponding figure for Sharon? Zero. The slide in the polls is having a snowball effect. In the first flush of victory, Peretz was able to attract traditional Likud voters from agricultural settlements and from the Sephardi working class. Now his decline in the polls has eroded voter confidence, and many are going over to Sharon or back to the Likud. Peretz also is faring badly among Ashkenazi pensioners who traditionally vote Labor, as Shimon Peres’ move to Kadima has legitimized Laborite support for the new centrist party. Another key area where Peretz has failed is among Russian immigrants who account for about 19 Knesset seats. Pundits say it’s because his thick black moustache may remind the Russians of Stalin, but the main reason again is Peretz’s perceived lack of prime ministerial stature. Among immigrants, 56 percent think Sharon is best qualified to serve as prime minister, 23 percent go for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and only 3 percent back Peretz. The Yediot poll gives Sharon’s Kadima eight of the 19 Russian seats, and Labor less than one. Labor’s declining popularity is having an effect on party morale. Already there is bickering reminiscent of the days when then-Labor leader Amram Mitzna started his downward spiral before the last election in January 2003. One of the Peretz campaign’s most outspoken critics is Alon Pinkas, former consul general in New York and now a candidate for Labor’s Knesset list. “In Israel you cannot be elected prime minister on the minimum-wage issue,” he chides. “How is it possible not to deal with state policy in Ben Gurion’s party?” So can Peretz’s free-fall be reversed? The main condition would be for him to develop a convincing prime ministerial persona. This can be done only by expanding the campaign agenda to include all relevant issues and — later — refocusing on the socio-economic agenda. In-depth polls show a fairly wide consensus that Peretz is smart and has integrity and a strong character. He needs to find a way to parlay these qualities, which helped him win the Labor leadership race, into a credible prime ministerial candidacy. Secondly, he may have to put more emphasis on a leadership team. That will probably happen after Labor holds primaries Jan. 17 to set its Knesset list. Once the slate is chosen, the party will be able to turn all its collective energies to campaigning. Yoel Marcus, a senior Ha’aretz political commentator, thinks it’s not too late for Peretz. “If he comes up with a political program for demarcating permanent borders, dismantling settlements, ending the occupation and stopping the bloodshed, he may soar again. Poverty is not going to run away,” Marcus writes. But will Peretz and his campaign managers see it that way? In the meantime, the gap between him and Sharon is growing wider by the day.

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