Surprising exactly no one, Shimon Peres has left the Labor Party to join forces with Ariel Sharon and the new Kadima Party. As is typical with much Israeli politics, the move is generating more heat than light: Labor is accusing Peres of betrayal, Likud is saying that this proves Kadima is a left-wing party, etc. etc. But this is a good divorce: it helps both Labor and Peres.
I doubt that it will change much in this election. Since Sharon faced down the Gaza settlers and broke with Likud, he is pretty credible as a peace candidate at least for the Israeli electorate. Few will vote Kadima now simply because Peres is high on its list. But Peres will help marginally, and if (as seems likely) Kadima wins, then he will get another coveted high ministerial post.
In the long run, I believe that this move helps the Labor Party: it can now more aggressively market itself as a social democratic force. Peres’ absence will make it easier for its Moroccan-born leader, Amir Peretz, to appeal to working-class Sephardi voters who despise Peres as a symbol of the old, Ashkenazi-elite based Mapai Party, Labor’s predecessor. (And not without justification: Peres was part of the Mapai crowd that stuck Sephardim into dreary development towns, and his brother recently issued a series of horrific anti-Sephardi ethnic slurs that Peres himself has not disavowed).
This is really the New Labor Party. Its leadership might well be Peretz, who just recently was in another party; Ben-Gurion University President Avishai Braverman, a former deputy director of the World Bank who has never been in the Knesset; Ophir Pines-Paz, the young Interior Minister who shocked everyone in the last Labor primary by coming from nowhere to a position of prominence; and Ami Ayalon, the former Israel Navy and Shin Bet chief who will also be a new member. (Ayalon developed the most promising extra-government peace initiative, the People’s Voice accord: go check out the website for it). For the first time, Labor can credibly say it has done its housecleaning.
If the polls are right, Kadima will gain about 33-34 seats; Labor about 25-26; and the rump Likud about 12-14. Peretz vowed a couple of months ago that he would never join a Likud government, and now he can say that he will join a Kadima government. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he does so, Labor will insist on Cabinet portfolios that are very focused on Israeli domestic issues: Finance, Health, Education, Housing, and most importantly, Interior (a very powerful ministry in Israel). Kadima will have the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Public Security. That will allow Labor to build a domestic constituency among working-class voters together with its traditional Ashkenazi elite base.
Israelis have never really appreciated Peres. He was a very good Prime Minister in the 1980’s, when someone needed to make the tough choices to crush the country’s galloping inflation. He is the father of the nation’s nuclear deterrent: as deputy defense minister in the 1960’s, he pulled the right strings to get the technology to Israel. But he is also an incorrigible wheeler-dealer whose word can never quite be trusted and is now addicted to ministerial positions. He’ll get what he wants. Labor will be freed from him. For once in Israel, there is something of a happy ending.