Workers' champion who defied the odds

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The Independent Online

After his surprise defeat of the 82-year-old Shimon Peres, his aim is not so much to return Labour to the workers as to return the workers to Labour. Like Mr Peretz, most of them are the children of immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries. Unlike Mr Peretz, most of them have voted consistently for the right-wingLikud party since Menachem Begin ended Labour's 29-year hegemony in 1977.

"Today, a person in Israel doesn't identify himself as left or right because of his views on subjects like taxation but because of his view regarding a Palestinian state and a peace settlement," Mr Peretz said recently. "As a result, there has been created a strange situation in which the working class tends 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."

Mr Peretz's conquest of Labour represents a change of generations. This time - unlike Ehud Barak's brief and unhappy tenure - it is probably irreversible. If Mr Peretz, now 53, fails, the party will hardly look for another working pensioner to replace him.

Mr Peretz, who moved to Israel with his Moroccan parents as a four-year-old, is not Labour's first eastern Jewish leader. The third candidate in this week's primary, Iraqi-born Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was there before. But Mr Ben-Eliezer entered politics as a retired general who spent his childhood on a kibbutz.

In contrast, Mr Peretz personifies what Israelis call the periphery, the neglected immigrant towns and villages of the 1950s. He both plays and disclaims the ethnic card. After his leg was crushed in atraining accident, the army offered him the compensation of running a petrol station. He boasts that he turned it down because he was not prepared to be anyone's boss. Instead, he went into local politics and became mayor of the Negev border town of Sderot, where he still lives.

He was elected to parliament on the Labour ticket in 1988, but has since been in and out of the party. One Nation, his breakaway faction which never won more than two seats, returned to the fold this year. As chairman of the Histadrut trade union federation in 1995, he fought high-profile campaigns for the low-paid, pensioners and single parents.

But Mr Peretz is not a one-issue politician. He is a member of Peace Now and on the board of the anti-establishment New Israel Fund. Ariel Sharon, he argued recently, left Gaza because he finally understood that an army could not defeat a people. Mr Peretz supported it on principle. "I see the occupation as an immoral act, first of all," he said. "I want to end the occupation not because of Palestinian pressure, but because I see it as an Israeli interest."

Now, as a newcomer on the international stage, with a limited command of English, he will strive to show the world and the Palestinians that he can deliver. It won't be easy, but for the man with the moustache it never was.