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Amir Peretz. He has no doubt: He can be prime minister. (Tomer Appelbaum)
Waiting for an earthquake
By Tom Segev

In a personal conversation, Amir Peretz turns out to be a reflective individual with a coherent worldview. The raucous cliches have been replaced. He wants to save Israel from itself - and will keep trying to do so.

Amir Peretz is an impressive person. At age 53, he has been in politics for more than 20 years, and his hair is graying, but he has not been able to shake off the image of a young Moroccan-born guy, who still has a lot to learn before he can be trusted. He himself is partly to blame for this: In public encounters he projects a kind of good-buddy merriment and delivers speeches punctuated by shouting and laden with bombastic cliches.

Less than 24 hours after Shimon Peres made a "humiliating deal" with Matan Vilnai - in which Vilnai agreed to drop out of Labor's leadership primaries in return for becoming Peres' No. 2 - the head of the Histadrut labor federation directed an "emotional call" to his "brothers and sisters" in the kibbutz movement, calling on them to support him. That was in the Labor Party's conference room in the Knesset. People who only heard him on the radio could not have guessed that he was not reading from a prepared text. Indeed he has considerable rhetorical ability.

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On the wall in front of him is a large picture of David Ben-Gurion, in suit and tie, not much older than Peretz is today. Behind him is an oil portrait of Yitzhak Rabin. Neither would have imagined that the former grower of flowers and garlic from the southern development town of Sderot might succeed them as party leader; even 82-year-old Shimon Peres, the present party leader, could have conceived that this might happen. Born in Poland, Peres is one of the country's founding fathers and was already making history when Amir Peretz was still a boy in his native Morocco. The contest between them seemed this week like a replay of one of the first chapters in the social history of the State of Israel.

Peretz is very careful not to attack the elderly Ashkenazi leader of his party, although he has declared that immediately after he defeats him, he will lay to rest the "ethnic demon" once and for all. Kill it. Disconnect it from the instruments. Subject it to mercy killing. Bury it in a public ceremony. Short but sturdy, Peretz looks good in a blue shirt open at the collar; he has just come from the barber and his Stalin-like mustache is also well-groomed.

Effusing charm and charisma, he did not whine or claim he had been screwed because he is Moroccan; he did not blame the media. There was something pathetic about the leader of the Histadrut, which has lost so much of its strength and glory, pinning his future on the kibbutzim - many of whose members are no more real than the virtual job Peres promised Vilnai (defense minister in a Peres government). Still, he projected a lot of optimism and was all momentum, as though he truly believed in his victory.

In a face-to-face talk he turns out to have a judicious worldview and a clear political strategy; the raucous cliches are replaced by reflective articulation. No, he does not know exactly how he will bury the "ethnic demon"; he has no problem coming up with gimmicks of one kind or another. I asked for an encyclopedia definition, and Peretz dictated, without pausing, and accurately: "Ethnic demon - emotional intensification of sources and traditions, and their linkage to a democratic procedure that culminates in a vote that is largely emotional."

Peretz attributes the "demon" to the aspiration of "the oligarchy" to preserve its status. For example, there was a reception in honor of the high-powered lawyer Yigal Arnon and the whole oligarchy was there - capital, government, media moguls - and the whole time they talked only about Peretz, with contempt, with loathing and with fear, he flatters himself. He is aware of the earthquake that will have to take place before the Labor Party will take upon itself a leader of his age, and a Moroccan-born one, and he would like very much to foment that earthquake. Israel with a prime minister like him, only a captain, not a major general, will be a different country. He has no doubt: He can be prime minister.

Peretz's worldview links the reduction of social gaps to the prospects of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. He has consistently tried to persuade the economically distressed classes that the settlements in the territories are being built at their expense, but he has not had much success. For this he blames the well-heeled left, but refers to places like "Ramat Hasharon" and "Afeka," rather than to "Ashkenazim": They failed to give the deprived classes a sense of belonging in the peace movement.

He is not a revolutionary, he is a social democrat. He thinks that the defense budget can be cut, but this week declined to say by how much. None of the candidates was asked to respond to that question and he will not do so, either, he said. Ultra-cautious, he also refused to propose a peace map of his own.

Peretz is in favor of a permanent settlement, based on negotiations. He considers himself an expert negotiator. Tactically, he explained, there is no difference between wage negotiations and political negotiations. The main thing is that in the end, each of the two sides should remain with something it is liable to lose: That is the key to any settlement.

Yes, he believes that there is a partner for negotiations: Abu Mazen. He would also be ready to talk to Hamas, provided the movement recognizes Israel's existence. He can conceive of a settlement involving territorial exchange, so that the large settlement blocs will remain in Israel, but he can also conceive of a possibility that the blocs will remain under Palestinian sovereignty: A Palestinian flag will fly over them and Israel will receive them on a leasing basis from the Palestinian state. But that is just a thought.

Peretz has a policy team headed by former minister Uzi Baram. Other members of the team are two former chiefs of the Shin Bet security service, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon, former Foreign Ministry officials David Kimche and Avi Primor, and Dalia Rabin. Not a young team that promises new ideas, I commented. Said Peretz in reply: "I am ready to give a great deal, a very great deal." His map, he said, is a "moral map." He believes that the occupation has corrupted the Israeli society. Therefore, Israel has a national interest in bringing it to an end. Someone has to save Israel from itself, he said. He will go on trying.

Neveh Shalom, in the Latrun area between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is a unique community in which Jews and Arabs live together in the hope of promoting peace. About two years ago, a Border Police unit entered the village and seized the local gardener, who had in his car a Palestinian who did not have a permit to be in Israel. The gardener was tried, but pleaded not guilty, arguing that Neveh Shalom is not in Israel and therefore no ban exists on transporting Palestinians within its boundaries.

Judge Alexander Ron, of the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court, acquitted the gardener. The judgment is a complex, fascinating document, a work of learning and history. The key point is that Neveh Shalom is located in an area which until the 1967 Six-Day War, was considered a demilitarized zone between Israel and Jordan, so its status differs from that of the West Bank, where Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli law. The very fact that there is an Israeli community in the area under discussion, in which Israeli citizens live, is not an indication of an intention of sovereignty. Judicial authority on a personal basis will never constitute a basis for an argument of effective rule in a territory, the judge wrote.

This is one of the most complex issues in international law. The Latrun enclave is a territory without sovereignty - one of the few of its kind on the planet. Here, then, would seem to be a paradise for all criminals.

In another case, a driver accused of speeding on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was acquitted for the same reason, and two Tel Aviv attorneys, representing the Blue Square supermarket chain, demanded that the Modi'in municipality inform them on the basis of which law it imposed a property tax on the Maccabim branch of the supermarket. The lawyers claim that Maccabim, too, stands on what was once a demilitarized zone: It is doubtful that any authority in the world can levy a property tax there.

There is a big problem here. Israel may be able to impose its laws on the ground, as it did in East Jerusalem - in other words, to annex it. But Neveh Shalom has friendship organizations throughout the world: Imagine the headlines after annexation; imagine what Condoleezza will say. The state therefore appealed the gardener's acquittal, but in the Jerusalem District Court, it turned out, embarrassingly, that the state had plunged itself into an international imbroglio and had to call on its best minds to extricate itself.

The appeal included many appendixes. The Foreign Ministry was to be involved, as was the international law unit of the army's Judge Advocate General office and the attorney general. It could have taken years and maybe ended up in the Supreme Court. The New York Times was liable to take an interest. The state wanted no part of this story; the gardener's attorney, Yitzhak Henig, wanted only what was good for his client. Thus was a creative solution, satisfactory to all, reached - something that only legal experts could devise: The gardener will retract his denial of guilt; the state will retract the indictment. Thus Judge Ron's judgment will be null and void, but the state's appeal will be accepted. The whole story will disappear as though it were only a pesky nightmare. Everyone was delighted. The District Court conferred the status of a judgment on the brilliant idea, and Condoleezza will know nothing about it.

The supermarket in Maccabim has in the meantime reached a compromise with the municipality.

One of the Internet sites that foster the Rabin assassination conspiracy theories shows a photograph of Shimon Peres with the caption "The murderer." The site adds, "Peres gave the order to assassinate Prime Minister Rabin." The site owner is a certain David Rothstein, from Kfar Sava. The reaction of Peres' spokesperson appeared on the Labor Party Web site: "Rothstein is a sick person who should be confined in a psychiatric hospital."

Rothstein was deeply offended: How does the person whom he accuses of the assassination dare say something like this about him? This week he filed a libel suit against Peres. "The plaintiff is sane," his lawyer assured the court. He is demanding NIS 250,000 from Peres.

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