The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Big changes afoot in Israeli politics

D Ba’al

In the wake of dissolution of Israel’s parliament and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s subsequent resignation from the right-wing Likud Party on November 21, a new election has been set for March 28. This will be the fifth Israeli election in the past 10 years, yet it may be the first one in a long time to have real potential for promoting peace and justice in the region.

The 120 seats in the Knesset, the parliament, are distributed among the parties according to their relative share of vote. In the previous election, of the 29 parties that had their names on the ballot, 12 won representation. The biggest players, as has been the case since the country’s earliest days, are the Labor Party with 21 seats and the Likud with 40.

The move to hold early elections followed the Labor Party’s decision to resign from its national-unity coalition with the Likud. Labor’s action came after the November 11 upset victory of Amir Peretz, 54, as head of the party over long-time Labor politician Shimon Peres. Following his loss, Peres announced on November 29 his resignation from the Labor Party and his support for Sharon, exposing his true reactionary politics.

Another important impact of moving up the elections is the break-up of Likud itself. Sharon’s new splinter group, called "Kadima" (Forward), has taken a third of Likud’s parliament members and most of its popular support.

The election of Peretz to head the Labor Party contains a significant potential for change. In Israeli politics he represents the anti-hero — the embodiment of a sharp break with tradition — and his rise to leadership has fuelled optimism among many progressive activists. His unconventional background may also make him a good Prime Minister.

Until now, all of Israel’s Prime Ministers have been of European descent. In contrast, Peretz was born in Morocco. He immigrated with his family to Israel at the age of four. It should be noted that of the Jews living in Israel, more than half come from the Arab world, and it is they who make up the larger part of the working class.

Almost all previous Prime Ministers have also had an extensive military background. Peretz, on the other hand, actually prides himself on not being an army general, but a "civic general". For the past 10 years he has been the leader of Israel’s largest trade union.

His trade union activities consisted chiefly of resisting, unsuccessfully, the neo-liberal privatisation of key public enterprises. Such privatisation has already resulted in the sell-off of many of the country’s assets. With this background, combined with his promise to increase the minimum wage by 40 percent, Peretz’s candidacy is viewed as a possible turning point by many Israeli workers.

Furthermore, the very fact that Peretz was elected as head of the Labor Party is a sign of big change within that party. Labor, headed by Peres, has been part of the government, together with the Likud, for most of the past five years of the Palestinian intifada. As such, Labor is fully accountable for all of the crimes committed against the Palestinian people.

However, Peretz, although he comes from a rather traditional right-wing background, is a member of the most dovish wing within the Labor Party.

With that in mind, and no doubt aiming to put more conservative elements at ease, he made sure to announce that he opposes the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland and the establishment of the capital of Palestine in Eastern Jerusalem, two issues at the core of the conflict between Palestinians and Israel. Without these proclamations, however, it would be unrealistic for him to expect to be elected.

Hadash (Hebrew acronym for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), in which the Communist Party of Israel is the key player, is gearing up for the elections. Soon the candidates will be chosen, and the first three positions will be mixed between Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis, in accordance with a recent national meeting.

D Ba’al is a member of the Young Communist League of Israel

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