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Amir Peretz and the Moroccan stigma

There are legitimate reasons not to want to see Knesset member Amir Peretz win back the leadership of the Labor Party. He was out of his depth as defense minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when he distinguished himself by ranting that “Hassan Nasrallah will remember the name Amir Peretz!” As Labor leader, he seemed to think he was still running the Histadrut national union; the sort of cocky declarations that fire up workers sounded like empty boasts coming from a candidate for prime minister. (In Monday’s Labor primary, Peretz finished in an effective tie with Knesset member Sheli Yechimovitch, the politician most identified with this summer’s phenomenal “social justice” movement. The runoff is Wednesday of next week.)

But even if Peretz becomes head of Labor again, which right now seems unlikely, he still will not be a serious contender for prime minister, and as such will not be able to return Labor to its role as a major force in Israeli politics, the liberal contender for power. Despite his brilliant record as a peacenik and firebrand for economic equality, Peretz, in the eyes of the general public, is not ready for prime time. And the reason is that since taking the national political stage in 2006 as Labor Party leader, and especially after the unpopular ending to the war in Lebanon later that year, Peretz, born in Morocco, has been stigmatized in Israel as the proverbial “dumb, hot-headed Moroccan.”

There’s been tremendous progress in breaking down Ashkenazi condescension toward Mizrahim over the decades, but the stereotypes have not completely gone away by any means. They followed David Levy in the 80s and 90s when he sought the leadership of Likud, and they’ve followed Peretz since he left the Histadrut and entered the top ranks of Labor.

“The biggest problem our target voters had with him in focus groups was that he was considered ‘not representative’ – in other words, not cultured enough, not sufficiently authoritative or dignified. I think it was a code for calling him ‘low-class,’” a 2006 campaign aide told me. “And at one point late in the campaign he sat down next to me, sighed, and said – I’m quoting from memory – ‘The country isn’t ready for a black guy as leader.’”

A video of him trying painfully to give a speech in English to American Jewish activists became a hit. He was caricatured as a cabinet minister talking through a bullhorn – a union rabble-rouser with a thick Moroccan accent and a Zapata moustache pretending to be a statesman.

And that was before the war in Lebanon. Afterward, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and military chief Dan Halutz were blamed for screwing up, Peretz was not just blamed for screwing up, he was laughed at for being stupid. The fatal image, one that will never leave him, was of him watching a military exercise through binoculars with the caps still on.

Like a dumb, hot-headed Moroccan. Or, as Wikileaks quoted a U.S. diplomat cabling what he heard from Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog during the 2006 campaign, the “public perception  of Peretz is [that he is] inexperienced, aggressive and Moroccan.” (Herzog denied having said this and the diplomat, Robert Danin, denied having heard it.)

The problem is not so much that Peretz is Moroccan (or, to be more politically correct than is called for in Israel, born in Morocco). If he were, for instance, an eloquent, Moroccan-born history professor at Tel Aviv University like former Labor foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, his ethnic background wouldn’t hurt him, or anyway not much. It would be the same if Peretz had risen to the top of the military establishment, like Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz, who is number two to Tzipi Livni in Kadima.

But Peretz is too much the “folkloric” Moroccan to be taken seriously for national leadership.  His accent is too thick, he talks too loud, he gestures too broadly. He hardly ever wears a tie. He’s a man of the Histadrut workers’ committees, of strikes, of crowds of fired-up workers.

He’s lived all his adult life in Sderot, which would be a giant plus for a more ‘representative” Israeli politician. For Peretz, it just bolsters his image as a Moroccan from the periphery, an outsider.

This is not a uniquely Israeli problem; in America, a black politician can be considered a genuine  contender for president only if he or she is not “too black,” like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama. A black American who still had too much of the South or the urban “ghetto” in his speech or manner would not be accepted by whites at large. So it is in Israel – a Mizrahi who’s “too Mizrahi” won’t be accepted by Ashkenazim at large, and especially not by Russians.

It’s a sad situation, but especially so in the case of Peretz, because he really does deserve a second chance – for the country’s sake, and certainly for the Left’s. During the first half of the 2000s, when the second intifada put the Left into a coma, Peretz, as Histadrut leader, was the country’s one strong, confident, winning liberal voice, the only guy still fighting. He’s been an outspoken dove since the start of his career, when, as mayor of Likud-crazy Sderot in the 1980s, he carried on a dialog with Gazan elder statesman Haider Abdel Shafi and organized a Negev peace festival. Very simply, he has brass balls.

Next Wednesday’s Labor Party election is very important; because of the summer protests, because of the brick wall Netanyahu is leading Israel into, and because America can’t save us anymore, I think an appetite for change is finally growing again in the Israeli public. Tzipi Livni is no alternative; a strong Labor leader could be,  if not in the next election, then the one after. I’m not saying Sheli Yechimovitch isn’t fit for the job; she is. I’m saying Amir Peretz is considered unfit to lead Labor, and certainly to lead Israel, for the absolute worst of reasons.

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    1. Electoral obstacles, fanned prejudices, are present in every electoral setting.

      In the US, which has now 2-year presidential campaigns, there is a public vetting process (as trivial and repugnant as it is), that separates those that are prepared to keep their focus during distractions and crises even, and those that get spun out.

      The vetting doesn’t always yeild the best, often doesn’t.

      Ability to control the message does not match the requirements of leadership, the ability to form policy or to address emergency.

      He’s certainly an asset to the labor party.

      It sounds exciting that they are forming a hopefully formidable alternative, that Akiva Eldar’s despondent electoral analysis last year might not be the case.

      Reply to Comment
    2. poctopus

      If Amir Peretz behaves like a clown, the people are to blame if they don’t want a clown
      as their leader ? Even if his political points of view and his messages are most suiting
      me, I cannot take him seriously. Sorry. Not a leader.
      Fuad Ben Eliezer, he was also rejected because of ethnic reasons? I don’t believe so.

      Reply to Comment
    3. RichardNYC

      Peretz would do better as a politician in America – we seem to love what Israelis dislike about this man.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Winterally

      Interesting to read. Go on Rattling The Cage! Says Winterally

      Reply to Comment
    5. Borg

      Stupidity is an equal opportunity player, affects plenty of Mizrachim and Ashkenazim. Peretz doesnt deserve a second chance until he figures out that you cant look thru binoculars with covers on. Lots of stupid Ashkenazim frequent this website

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      Larry, I’m not sure you’re right. I voted Labor in the general election before last, as I had before. Peretz’s Moroccan roots made no difference to me, I’d have liked to seem him as PM although I’m not, to my knowledge, of Mizrahi origin. His big mistake was accepting the Ministry of Defense, nothing to do with Moroccan roots. To become creditable again, whoever leads Labour will have to have the courage to choose to go into opposition rather than compromise the interests of the party.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Philos

      Borg, you should go look online how many leaders, including Israeli ones, have done the same thing as Peretz with the binoculars. Just off the top of my head I know GW Bush did and he got reelected. Only Peretz got seriously slammed for this….

      Reply to Comment
    8. directrob

      Is there no better example than Peretz to make your point? Isn’t he the man responsible for the shooting of cluster grenades during the last two days of the Lebanon war?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ben Israel

      Peretz is a major member of Peace Now. Hard to figure, isn’t it?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Bill

      When asked about the political future of Amir Peretz, Hassan Nasrallah replied “Who’s Amir Peretz?”

      Reply to Comment
    11. ARTH

      As it says in the Talmud, “ein sheker blee raglayyim.” There is no lie which does not have a basis in truth. This applies to Peretz.

      Reply to Comment