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.