922 words PERETZ ASTONISHES
By David Bedein
THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION
The election of an Israeli Moroccan union leader, MK Amir Peretz as the new chairman of the Israel Labor Party, in which he ousted veteran Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, could best be described as the most dramatic development in Israeli politics since the surprise victory of Menachem Begin in the Israeli elections of 1977. He is the first Sephardic Israeli, the first development town Israeli to achieve such a position. His victory, in a sense, represents the culmination of what in the early 1970’s was known as the Israeli Black Panther Movement, which had one clear and simple goal: Placing working class Sephardic Jews into the leadership of the political system of Israel, a goal that all the major parties resisted – despite the fact that close to 60% of the Israeli population is now of Sephardic origin. The other significance of Peretz victory was that at a time of economic boom in Israel, as evidenced by Israel’s dynamic stock exchange, now worth upwards of three billion dollars, the struggling second Israel has felt left out, and the strength of that electorate was suddenly felt with Peretz’s victory.
Lova Eliav, one of the founding members of the Labor Party, also welcomed the results. “After we settled people in the 1950s in shacks, in transit camps, in tents and temporary housing, I hoped that the day would come in which out of that second generation of transit camp residents would raise an authentic leader-and that is what’s happened today.” Eliav also allowed himself to wax nostalgic, and said that in his opinion, “Eshkol and Sapir, with whom I worked in the 1950s, are gazing down at us from above and are happy along with us.”
Peretz grew up in a transit camp in the western Negev which eventually became the development town of Sderot.
His father worked in a factory in Kibbutz Ruhama and his mother was a housewife. His family suffered from want, and little Amir, from a young age, aware of the injustice around him and even published a social protest booklet along with a friend.
In the IDF, he served in the Paratroopers Brigade as ordnance officer. In 1974 he was badly wounded in the aftermath in the Mitleh in Sinai. For a year he was confined to his bed, afterwards to a wheelchair, until regaining the use of his legs, contrary to his doctor’s prediction.
When he was released from the hospital, he decided to realize his dream-he bought a plot in Moshav Nir Akiva and became a moshavnik. He began to grow vegetables and flowers, while still in a wheelchair.
During this period he also established a family. Amir married Ahlama and they had four children, Ohad, 26, Shani, 23, Yiftah, 17 and Matan, 15.
In 1983 his friends in Sderot called on him to lead them in the elections for the local authority. And so, at age 30, he decided to run in the Sderot elections as a representative of the Labor Party. He won the elections and for the next five year was the mayor.
In 1988 a.m.ir was elected to the 12th Knesset on the Labor Party List and since then he has been a Knesset member continuously. In the Knesset he mainly addressed social economic issues and was even the chairman of the Labor and Welfare Committee and chairman of the Health Committee.
In 1994 Peretz was elected chairman of the main department of the Histadrut-the professional unions department.
In December 1995 he was elected the chairman of the new Histadrut. Three years later he was again elected, in personal elections, to the position of Histadrut chairman by a large majority and in May 2002 he was elected to the position for the next five years.
Just before the 1999 Knesset elections, Peretz formed the workers’ Am Ehad party. The new party, which led a social line, won two seats in The 15th Knesset. The faction joined the government when the unity government was formed early this year.
In the elections for the 16th Knesset, his party won three seats. Last year his party merged with the Labor Party, and Peretz returned to his party.
At the ceremony in memory of Yitzhak Rabin this week, Peretz had difficulty with a series of words in English and sounded like someone whose teeth were about to shatter.
From time to time, giggles were heard from the back of the room, and when he uttered the words “Thank you very much” with no mistakes, everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
Peretz also chose to recount some details of his personal life. “I was born in Morocco and grew up in Israel.. During my army service as an IDF officer I was severely wounded and spent two years in hospital. I left in a wheelchair and swore that the next war in which I fought would be a war for the sake of peace.” During this part, polished or not, he received cheers.
On a more sober note, however, Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz said that Amir Peretz is entirely unfit to be prime minister. “Let him show me one essay that he wrote. He has no governmental experience. He has no academic or military experience. He does not have even the minimal qualifications to lead the country. His election was real chutzpa. It is scary that someone like him, with no experience, should presume to lead Israel,” Steinitz said.