Israelis weigh shift in values

New Labor leader focuses on social issues vs. security


SDEROT, Israel -- From the time he could first vote, Shimon Sinai has put his trust in Israel's leading right-wing party, the Likud, believing that Israel needed to be tough with the Palestinians, be strong on defense and embrace free markets.

But when Israel holds parliamentary elections in March, the 42-year-old owner of a soup kitchen for the poor in this hardscrabble southern Israeli town plans to cast his vote for the newest, most talked-about political star in Israel, the Labor Party's Amir Peretz.

Moroccan-born and a charismatic union leader, Peretz has helped tear up the old rules of Israeli politics, thanks to his surprise defeat last month of Shimon Peres, the erudite, Polish-born former prime minister, to become leader of the Labor Party, the center-left party that Peres had led for much of the past four decades.

Peretz's victory in Labor was as large a break from the political norm as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to leave the Likud and create a new party. Labor suddenly seemed invigorated, Likud suddenly weakened.

Peretz's new prominence has been an awakening for Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries, citizens who, like Peretz, have long complained about being marginalized politically and economically. In Peretz, they see a politician with working-class roots and deep concern about poverty and social issues. In him, they see not just a hero, they see themselves.

"I'm a diehard Likudnik, but he is one of ours," says Sinai, whose parents moved to Israel from Iraq in the 1940s.

Peretz's appeal, however, could reach beyond those who share his origins. His promises to combat poverty, create jobs and increase the minimum wage have struck a nerve among all Israeli voters, used to hearing political leaders talk more about national security.

Speaking last week during a Labor Party rally, Peretz attacked Sharon's social policies.

"You know how to look after the security of the country, but we know how to take care of people better than you, how to take care of every child, how to ensure that new immigrants can buy apartments," he said. "We will return the honor of people to being a major value."

His calls for the Israeli government to seek a final peace agreement with the Palestinians and shift its energies from construction of settlements in the West Bank to improving health care, education, welfare and infrastructure in Israel have revitalized the Labor Party, which saw its support slip in recent years.

"For years we've sacrificed Israeli society for investments with no future in the settlements," he said during a speech before the Labor Party central committee last month.

Since Peretz's defeat of Peres, the Labor Party's ranks have swelled with 25,000 new members.

But critics say his economic ideas will be too costly and drive investors away from Israel. The day he won the party leadership, Israel's stock market dropped.

For Peretz to win in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March, he will need to increase his support significantly. Sharon's new party, Kadima, continues to lead in the polls with Labor second.

Still, it's easy to understand Peretz's attraction after a visit to the town where he lives, Sderot, a small industrial center of 24,000 people about 50 miles southwest of Tel Aviv.

Sderot began as a settlement camp for Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries and later for arrivals from Russia and Ethiopia. While Israel's high-tech industries prospered during the past decade, towns in the countryside such as Sderot failed to attract much economic growth, leaving many families unemployed or struggling to make ends meet with low-paying jobs.

Seven years ago, Sinai's father, a grocer, opened a soup kitchen to help the growing number of needy families coming to his shop. After serving a few families in the first year, it now supplies 50 families with regular meals.

"There's a demand for more, but we don't have the supplies," Sinai said.

Rabbi Alezra Amran, Sderot's vice mayor, dedicates most of his days to collecting donated fruits and vegetables to distribute to about 400 other needy Sderot families.

"It's an unbelievable situation. You see parents sending their children to school without even a sandwich," he said.

Palestinian communities have faced far more serious problems, but within Israel the so-called "development towns" such as Sderot are at the bottom of Israeli society, says Erez Tzfadia, a political scientist teaching at Sapir College in Sderot.

Nearly 50 percent of Sderot's working population earn the minimum wage of about $700 or less per month, according to government statistics.

"Peretz symbolizes the periphery of Israeli Jewish society," says Tzfadia.

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