Amir Peretz (Hebrew: עמיר פרץ; born Armand Peretz on 9 March 1952) is an Israeli politician who currently serves as a member of the Knesset for the Zionist Union. He previously served as Minister of Defence, leader of the Labor Party and Minister of Environmental Protection.
Peretz is the former chairman of the Histadrut trade union federation and defeated Shimon Peres in the primary elections for the Labor leadership on 9 November 2005. He led the Labor Party to a second place showing in the 2006 elections and became Defense Minister on 4 May 2006. He was defeated by Ehud Barak for the Labor leadership on 12 June 2007 and resigned from the cabinet. He joined the Hatnuah party in December 2012, before rejoining the Labor Party in September 2015.
Peretz was born as Armand Peretz in Boujad, Morocco, on 9 March 1952 during French colonial rule. His father David was head of the Jewish community in Boujad. He worked as an accountant and at a petrol station. The family emigrated to Israel when Morocco won independence in 1956. They were settled in the development town of Sderot, where Peretz lived until the age of 18. He went to high school in a nearby kibbutz.
He served in the Israel Defense Forces as the brigade ordnance officer of the 202nd paratroopers brigade and reached the rank of captain. On 22 April 1974, Peretz was badly wounded as a result of an accident at the Mitla Pass. He spent a year in the hospital recuperating. After leaving the hospital, he bought a farm in the village of Nir Akiva. Still in a wheelchair, he began growing vegetables and flowers for export. During this period he met his wife Ahlama and they married. They have four children.
Mayor of Sderot
In 1983, answering a call made by friends, Peretz ran for the office of mayor of Sderot, as candidate of the Israel Labor Party. At only 31 years of age he won a victory that ended a long period of dominance of the town's politics by the right-wing Likud party and the National Religious Party. It was the first in a series of local councils that passed back to Labor control in the late 1980s. As mayor, he strongly emphasized education and worked to improve previously fractious relations with the kibbutzim in the area.
Histadrut and 'One Nation'
In 1988 he was elected a member of the Knesset. In 1994, after failing in a previous bid for Histadrut leadership, Peretz joined forces with Haim Ramon to contest control of the then powerful trade union federation. They ran on an independent list against the favoured candidate of then Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin. They won, and Peretz became Ramon's deputy at the Histadrut, isolating him within the Labor Party. He became chairman of the Histadrut in December 1995, when Ramon reentered the cabinet following Rabin's assassination. During his early years at the helm of the Histadrut, Peretz was regarded as a militant firebrand, with an easy hand on the trigger of general strikes. Sometimes the pretext for declaring a general strike would be an inopportune statement by the finance minister, as had been the case with Ya'akov Ne'eman in 1996.
However, in his later years as head of Histadrut, Peretz was seen as becoming much more moderate, as he moved toward a potential run for national office. During the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu as finance minister (February 2003 – August 2005), Peretz was fairly cooperative with the government in a series of structural and financial reforms that moved Israel towards a more market-oriented economy. He has remarked that "the most effective strike is the one that didn't occur".
In 1999 Peretz resigned from the Labor Party to form his own party, One Nation. The party won two seats in the Knesset in the 1999 elections, and three in 2003. As Labor's fortunes changed with the Likud Party in government, and Israel's social programmes being dismantled by the market-oriented reforms of finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peretz became increasingly popular with Israel's working-class. By the start of 2004 he was being talked of as a "white knight who will rescue Labor from oblivion". After protracted negotiations with then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and other party leaders, One Nation merged with Labor in the summer of 2004.
Labor Party leadership
After the merger, Peretz ran for the leadership of the Labor Party on a platform of ending the coalition with Likud, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and reasserting Labor's traditional socialist economic policies. Peretz narrowly defeated Peres, the incumbent leader, in the election on 9 November 2005.
During his campaign Peretz declared that "within two years of taking office I will have eradicated child poverty in Israel". Notwithstanding, he has reiterated his commitment to a market economy. For his movement in latter years towards "third way" positions, as well as for his earthy and warm personality, Peretz has been compared to Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In matters concerning relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world, Peretz was seen as holding dovish positions. He was one of the early leaders of the Peace Now movement. He was also, in the 1980s, a member of a group of eight Labor party Knesset members, dubbed "the Eight" and led by Yossi Beilin, who tried to set a liberal agenda for the party in matters concerning the peace process with the Palestinians, connecting the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians with the failure to solve Israel's most pressing social ills.
Peretz saw an intrinsic connection between a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resolving of Israel's internal social tensions. He argued that the resources allotted to the settlements in the West Bank had diverted funds that could have helped to solve social problems throughout Israel. He described the conflict as having mutated Israeli politics, so that the traditional left-right distinctions did not hold. Instead of supporting a social-democratic left that would advance their cause, the lower classes, mostly of Middle Eastern Jewish origins, were diverted to the right by the fanning of nationalist tendencies. Concurrently, the left in Israel was usurped by the well-to-do, so that the Labor party had ironically become elitist. Peretz also backed direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas.
Peretz won 42% of the votes as against 40% for Peres and 17% for former defence minister and former party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. After winning this election, Peretz resigned from his post at Histadrut to focus on the campaign to become the prime minister. In fulfillment of Peretz's pledge to withdraw Labor from the Likud-led coalition government, the party withdrew its support for the government on 11 November and all Labor Party cabinet ministers resigned. This action deprived the government of its majority in the Knesset and resulted in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calling a new election for 28 March 2006. Shortly thereafter, Sharon and much of his Cabinet left Likud to form a new party, Kadima.
Peretz was widely criticised for abandoning the social agenda that headlined his campaign.
He was accused of choosing to undertake the Israeli Ministry of Defense portfolio merely because of its prestige and that he should have demanded the Ministry of Finance portfolio that better corresponds with his and the Labor Party social agenda. His performance as a Minister of Defense during the Second Lebanon War was deemed to be poor by the public, which led to an early elections for the Labor Party leadership. He was defeated by former Labor Party chairman and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and chose to resign from his post.
Election and government
If Labor had won the 2006 election, Amir Peretz would have become the first non-Ashkenazi prime minister in Israel's history. However, Labor only received 19 seats, placing second behind the Kadima Party (29 seats), led by Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert. Labor agreed to join a coalition government led by Olmert and the Kadima Party. In the negotiations for the formation of the government, Peretz, after attempting to gain the finance ministry, became Defense Minister, replacing Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) in the post. Peretz also received the title of Deputy Prime Minister.
Minister of Defense 2006–2007
During his term as Defense Minister, on 12 July, the second Lebanon war broke between Israel and Lebanon, following the capture of two Israeli soldiers by the Hezbollah from Israel's northern border. Peretz, together with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have decided to respond aggressively and launched a campaign against the Lebanese militia of Hezbollah. For 33 days the attacks were carried out via air and land on military and civilian targets. In the last 48 hours of the war, Peretz pushed for a massive ground operation. Land troops were flown by helicopters to seize the ground between the Israeli-Lebanese border and the river Litani. In this operation, over 33 Israeli soldiers were killed, and much anger was created amongst the Israeli public. The committee that was established by the government to investigate the war, the Winograd Committee, found that the decision to launch this operation was rational and justifiable under the current circumstances. After losing the internal elections in the Labor party to Ehud Barak, Peretz quit the defense ministry in June 2007.
Appointing the first Arab Muslim Minister in the Israeli Government
During his period as the leader of the Labor Party, Peretz nominated an Arab Muslim Israeli, Raleb Majadele, to be Minister of Culture, Science and Sports. His nomination was a breakthrough in the fragile relationship between the Arab-Israeli population and the Israeli government. This nomination was criticized by the right-wing party of Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Lieberman.
Peretz remained in the Knesset after losing his leadership role in the Labor Party and was re-elected in 2009. He opposed Ehud Barak's decision to enter a coalition government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. In December 2012, he left the Labor Party to join Tzipi Livni's new Hatnuah party. As a result, he resigned from the Knesset, and was replaced by Yoram Marciano.
He was re-elected to the Knesset on the Hatnuah list in the 2013 elections, and was appointed Minister of Environmental Protection. However, he resigned from the post on 9 November 2014 due to his opposition to the government's budget plans.
After being re-elected again in 2015 on the Zionist Union list (an alliance of Hatnuah and the Labor Party), Peretz defected from Hatnuah back to the Labor Party in September 2015.
Amir Peretz was hailed during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 as a defense visionary for having had the foresight while in office back in 2006–2007 to face down myriad skeptics and push for the development of Iron Dome, Israel's unique anti-rocket interceptor system.