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Interview with Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadrut and candidate for head of the Israel Labour Party

The text below is an interview conducted with Amir Peretz, the leader of Israel's national trade union center, the Histadrut, and recently-announced candidate for leader of the Israel Labour Party.

Elections within that party take place at the end of June, and the other candidates are Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Matan Vilna'i and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. According to recent news reports and polls, Peretz stands a good chance of making it to the second stage of voting. We felt that LabourStart readers around the world would want to know what the leader of the organized working class in Israel thought about such matters as the role of trade unionists in politics, relations with the Palestinian unions, how to end the occupation and create an independent Palestinian state and so on.

I believe that Peretz's answers -- and his candidacy -- offer a new hope to all the peoples of the Middle East. If you wish to know more about the Peretz campaign, visit its website in English. (Versions are also available in Arabic, Russian and of course Hebrew, by going here.) If you wish to show your solidarity with Amir Peretz's campaign there is no better way than to donate online -- they have created a secure, online donation form which works in English and Hebrew here.

-- Eric Lee, 12 June 2005

Amir Peretz.

LabourStart: Amos Oz once wrote that he looked forward to the day when Israeli politics would be less focussed on where the country's borders would lie, and more on what kind of society existed within those borders. Is your candidacy an expression of that desire for a "normalization" of Israeli politics?

AP: Israeli politics differ from politics almost everywhere else in the world because the traditional difference between 'left' and 'right' has been distorted by the occupation and the argument over politics. Today, a person in Israel doesn't identify himself as 'left' or 'right' because of his views on subjects like taxation, for example, but instead because of his view regarding a Palestinian state and a peace settlement. As as result of this, there has been created in Israel a strange situation in which the lower classes and the working class tend to support the parties of the right, and the upper class tends to support the left. Not only does this situation prevent the left from having a decent chance at winning elections, but it has also caused the concept of peace to become an elitist product which is identified with factory owners and not with factory workers.

I see this as the main problem that needs to concern all those who seek peace in Israel and abroad. The Israel Labour Party has in fact adopted in recent years a right-wing socio-economic policy which almost doesn't differ from that of Netanyahu and the Likud, and for that reason fell apart in the last elections.

In 1977 Menachem Begin, who then stood at the head of the Likud, created a revolution and removed the Labour Party from power. Begin's revolution was a social revolution, based on promises of social change and on giving a feeling of belonging to the working class, which felt that the Labour Party was alienated from them. Begin carried out a social revolution, but used the "train ticket" he received from the people to travel to the occupied Palestinian territories.

I would like to be the Menachem Begin of the Labour Party, to return to it the social values and the support of the people. If I receive from the people the same "train ticket" that they once gave to Begin, I intend to travel with it towards peace.

LabourStart: There are very few countries where the leaders of trade union centres are candidates for leadership. Zimbabwe and South Korea come to mind, though in both cases the individuals quit their roles as trade union leaders before becoming candidates for top office. Why do you think that in Israel, unique among the nations in this sense, a trade union leader has emerged as a serious candidate for the post of Prime Minister?

AP: I actually know of several additonal examples of workers' leaders who became heads of government, such as Bob Hawke in Australia, Lech Walesa in Poland, and Lula in Brazil.

In Israel we have a strange situation in which between the two main parties, Labour and the Likud, a consensus has emerged and differences over social and economic issues have been blurred. Netanyahyu, who has been Israel's Finance Minister in recent years, has pushed extreme Thatcherite economic policies which have widened the social gap in Israel society to monstrous proportions.

In the absence of a genuine social opposition in the Knesset, the Histadrut has been leading the public battles against Netanyahu's policies, including the suffering of pensioners, workers, the unemployed, single mothers, the disabled, and the middle class. I think that today I represent in Israeli society the true social democratic way, which emphasizes human capital and not economic capital.

There is no doubt that if in the elections of 2006, as I hope will be case, will be between Labour with me at the head and the Likud headed up by Netanyahu, that will be the first time that these two world views stand as a clear choice in Israel -- the public will need to decide between the way of peace and social justice which I represent, and political extremism and right-wing economics which Netanyahu represents. I think that the Israeli public will benefit from an election campaign which will put ideological matters at their center, regardless of the actual election results.

LabourStart: In a globalized world, with free trade and with the Israeli economy closely tied to that of the USA, are you concerned about the impact of neo-liberalism on Israeli society?

AP: I am very concerned by the extreme right-wing tendency which today characterizes the Israeli economy under Netanyahu. Thirty percent of the workers today earn less than 2,000 shekels per month ($450). As a result, we have seen the creation here in recent years of a new class of the working poor who work full-time, usually in difficult conditions, and earn a salary which would not suffic even to support a single person for a month, let alone to support a family. This is a destructive process which causes feelings of alienation and frustration, and causes a rise in violence and crime.

Israeli society from the beginning has been based on the values of solidarity. [Yet] Today, on every television news broadcast, you can see old people demonstrating, demanding medications that they need. This is a terrible reality and I very much fear for the fate of Israeli society if these things continue.

LabourStart: You have spoken of the need to strengthen labour laws and workers rights in Israel. Concretely, what would you do?

AP: The most important things in my eyes are the raising of the minimum wage, the limiting of employment through employment agencies, the guarantee of a pension to every citizen, and strengthening the enforcement of labour laws.

Today, even if the laws in Israel were correct, it is not possible to enforce them because in the entire state of Israel there are only twenty inspectors responsible for the labour laws, because the government apparantly is interested in the existence of an employment jungle in which only the strong survive.

I intend to raise the minimum wage in Israel to $1,000 in order to return those who are paid minimum wage, who today struggle to survive, to the shops. We will also force the owners of capital to invest more in human capital. The minimum wage in Israel today is $3.70 per hour, as opposed to $6.10 per hour in Britain and $9.30 an hour in Ireland. The situation must end.

One of the most difficult struggles I fight is against hiring by means of employment agencies, which today embrace almost 8% of the Israeli labour market. As opposed to what happens in well-organized societies, in Israel employment via such agencies is not usually temporary, but is a means to allow the employment of a worker for years or decades without paying social benefits. I have no doubt that if we succeed in fixing these basic issues in the Israeli economy, the situation will only improve.

LabourStart: You've spoken of your commitment to an end to the occupation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But even Sharon today speaks of accepting the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Where do you differ?

AP: The difference between my positions and Sharon's is the difference between east and west. Sharon, a nationalist at his core, undertands today after 38 years of occuption what every child knows: an army cannot defeat a people. Only after understanding that, he was forced at great pain to give up the settlements which he himself created in the Gaza strip, settlements whose creation emptied out the budgets for education and welfare of the social periphery, and increased the social gap in Israel.

I see the occupation as an immoral act, first of all. The occupation in my view is not a territorial question but one of morality. I want to end the occuption not because of international or Palestinian pressure, but because I see in it an Israeli interest.

Occupation has the quality, even if this is sometimes hidden, of influencing the occupier as well as the occupied. Our children are sent on an impossible mission -- to rule over another people, and are asked to cope with impossible situations. Sometimes they return with their souls scarred, and that affects the whole society. I see the occupation as being one of the main reasons for the rise of violence in Israeli society, and the moral decline, the corruption. When a nation rules for 38 years over another people, moral norms become twisted.

LabourStart: In the aftermath of the Iraq war, an independent, democratic trade union movement of considerable size has arisen in that country. It is probably the only other large trade union movement in the Middle East, other than the Histadrut. What is your view of the emerging trade unions in Iraq, and do you imagine the Histadrut developing fraternal relations with those unions?

AP: One of the biggest problems of the last century has been the creation of one-sided globalization: there is a globalization of capital, but there is no globalization of rights. I see in every step that can advance human rights, civil and workers rights, and the values of social solidarity, an important and positive step, in any part of the world. I certainly look forward to the day in which the Iraqi workers organization and the Israeli Histadrut will have relations of brotherhood. My greatest dream is that one day is that the children of the Middle East will one day play together rather than shoot one another.

LabourStart: Recently, the Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) met and reached agreement on a number of issues. Are you encouraged by these contacts with your Palestinian counterparts?

AP: I am very encouraged by the contacts and the understandings reached between the Histadrut and the Palestinian workers organizations. Those contacts started at my initiative. I see in this a great hope and proof to both the Israeli and Palestinian publics that dialogue and the reaching of agreements are possible when there is a will to do so. I really really hope that we will be able to help the Palestinian unions from our experience with workers' issues.

LabourStart: You have written that you "believe we are on the verge of the Labor movementís renaissance" in Israel. Some would say that Israeli labour movement had its day a generation or two ago. Do great historical movements ever get a second chance?

AP: In Israel, as in most of the world, there are two large political blocs which replace one another in power a number of times in the past, just as in the USA there have been changes of government between Democratics and Republics, or in Britain between Conservatives and Labour. I think that the [Israel] Labour Party needs to create for itself the chance to return to power and not to sit and wait for that day to come. That chance exists, in my view, in the redefinition of the Labour Party as a social democratic movement with clear social values, as it was in the days in which it held power for many years.

LabourStart: In a number of countries, a number of unions have been calling for various kinds of boycotts and sanctions directed against Israel. Most recently, such a boycott announced by the Association of University Teachers in Britain was overturned. What do you say to trade unionists who believe that boycotts and sanctions directed against Israel are a good way of moving forward toward peace in the region?

AP: I think that sanctions and boycotts solve nothing. You can't convince a man of anything if you refuse to talk to him. I see in dialogue and negotiation the main and best way to solve problems in nearly any situation.

Translated from the Hebrew by Eric Lee.

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