The media in Israel and the region will be full of harsh eulogies on his term in office, so I thought I would provide a few positives from the Peretz era that should not be lost in the wave of negativity. For any of my Israel Labour Party card carrying member friends out there, this is not an endorsement of Peretz and certainly, perish the thought, not me suggesting that he be re-elected in Monday’s primary. Here then are my top three positives on Amir Peretz (what did you expect, ten?!):
1. Peretz’s potentially most significant, if larger unrealized, contribution was to bring to together a progressive socio-economic platform with a pro-peace message. The key disconnect in Israeli politics has for too long been that those who suffer most socio-economically from the absence of peace are also those who are most easily rallied to the uber-nationalist, anti-peace flag. Peretz tried to bring Israel’s Sephardi working class and the residents of the peripheral development towns into the Labour and peace camps. It is this community that Peretz came from and his rise to the leadership represented a real hope. It is true that Peretz failed to deliver or even advance a peace platform, but any new leader will need to strengthen that peace-economic self-interest linkage.
2. It could have been worse. This is of course the get-out-of-free-jail card of any unsuccessful politician, but Amir might have more justification than most in playing this card. Peretz apparently had a crucial role in preventing Israel from extending last summer’s attacks over to the Syria arena – despite the prompting of some in the US administration. Peretz worked to dampen some of the excesses of Yair Naveh, the outgoing head of the IDF’s Central Command. Naveh is a West Bank settler and acted like one in office. He constantly thwarted any political efforts to ease Palestinian conditions in the West Bank. Peretz at least made an effort to push back. Peretz was sometimes given to unexpected bouts of frankness. Just last week when Israel arrested Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, Peretz responded “What would you prefer? Military strikes and assassinations?” In this, Peretz is probably telling it exactly as it is. There were pressures to revenge Hamas for the Qassam rocket strikes and Peretz tried to guide things in the direction of reversible, rather than irreversible measures.
3. The summer 2006 Lebanon debacle. This is obviously the failure that Peretz will be most remembered for and associated with and to a degree deservedly so. But the military lack of preparedness and lack of strategy and the non pursuit of peace options were all things he inherited, rather than created. A detailed reading of the Winograd report into the war presents a very interesting picture regarding Peretz’s role. Peretz constantly seems to suggest that Israel’s military options would face severe time limitations and would have to be over in a matter of days. For him the exit strategy was obvious – the intervention of international, US-led diplomacy to put an end to the hostilities. Peretz’s fatal mistake in his analysis was a failure to appreciate just how ideologically blinkered and indeed counter-productive to Israel’s security were the neocons driving US policy. Elliot Abrams and Ambassador John Bolton aggressively opposed an early diplomatic resolution to the war. In so doing they acted contrary to the expectations of Peretz and it seems other Israeli decision makers. On day thirty-four a UN resolution did indeed end the war and the only difference in outcome to the kind of resolution that would have been passed on day four were the Israeli and Lebanese lives lost in the meantime.