Velvet Divorce, Israeli-Style

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.

—Jonathan Zasloff

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.