Israel's best hope for peace

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to break from the conservative Likud party he created, to form a new party is the latest in a series of electoral tremors that began when Amir Peretz beat Shimon Peres for chairman of Israel's Labor Party and redefined the nation's peace camp.

President Bush and his foreign policy aides are much more comfortable with Mr. Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the probable new Likud leader, than they are with Mr. Peretz.

Too bad, because Peretz is more likely to bring peace to Israel.

Peretz rose to power as the leader of Israel's Histadrut trade union federation. His platform calls for raising the minimum wage and waging war on poverty. One-quarter of Israelis older than 65 and one-third of Israel's children live below the poverty line.

Peretz, an unabashed Social Democrat, calls himself a "social issues general." Unlike past and current Israeli leaders, he would need a translator to talk with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office because his English is minimal. But he wouldn't need one to talk with the Arab world, a first for an Israeli leader.

A victorious Peretz in next spring's parliamentary elections would be the Bush administration's best hope for moving Israel toward a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. A Sephardic Jew, he and his family arrived in Israel from Morocco when he was 4. The transit camp they settled in grew into the Israeli town of Sderot, a few miles from the Gaza border. The town has been in the news because it is a frequent target of Palestinian extremists firing Kassam rockets from Gaza. Sderot is typical of towns in which populations live on the edge and far from the chattering classes of North Tel Aviv.

Historically, Jews of Ashkenazi, or European, ancestry have led Israel's Labor Party, which has it base is elite Tel Aviv and its wealthy environs. Labor's elitism, coupled with its neoliberal policies, have alienated much of the electoral backing it needs to build support for a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians. And what Peretz calls "the ethnic genie" has left a gaping hole in the fabric of Israeli society: Sephardic Jews from North Africa, mostly working class and poor, feel like second-class citizens.

A Peretz victory will depend on attracting these voters, who until now have not supported peace with the Palestinians. And he will reach out to the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab.

Sharon, mindful of the Peretz threat, has hinted that his new party will be "centrist" in foreign and domestic policies. To pull that off, he will have to further distance himself from his dismal economic record. A third party has never fared well in Israel, where leaders as iconic as David Ben-Gurion bolted their parties to form new ones only to fizzle out on election day.

It's impossible to project who will win the Israeli elections, but for the sake of US foreign policy, Bush should hope for a strong showing by Peretz.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel and is a co-author of "Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?" ©2005 The Los Angeles Times.

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