War would be a scourge enough if it were only a tragedy. It is also a distraction.
If a newspaper runs one story about Israel, it is likely to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because war stories shock. In Israel, where terrorism is close to home and any bus bombing might include a friend, it’s no different. Israeli political debate focuses on who will keep Israeli children safe in cafes, which for an Israeli voter inexorably overshadows other topics.
So not until recently did the spotlight hit the economy under Sharon and the conservative Likud party with whom he rose to power. In five years, Sharon’s governments have unleashed the free market, slashing spending for the poor and education, cutting welfare and supporting layoffs. Now, one in five Israelis live under the poverty line, and that rate is increasing.
Enter Amir Peretz. Here is a man who revived Israel’s largest labor union, the Histadrut, with tough strikes. As of this month’s elections, he leads Israel’s long-lethargic Labor Party. Guess what he’s running on? Not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — he’s talking of reinvigorating welfare and raising the minimum wage by 30 percent, to $1,000 a month. Sharon’s Israel needed a reminder that the Jewish state was founded in part by socialist, young, idealistic workers and farmers. Now, it has one, and he’s running for prime minister.
In doing so, Peretz has shifted the whole political discourse toward the working Israeli. Soon after Peretz’s victory, Sharon declared a “war on poverty,” while traditional Likudniks Shaul Mofaz and Silvan Shalom lashed out at Sharon’s finance minister. Peretz has reframed the debate in his terms (to an extent, at least — security issues will not soon vanish from today’s Israel). This improves Peretz’s chances, and even if he loses, workers will benefit from his influence on Israeli politics.
I was disappointed when Peretz announced that he, like Sharon, supports a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. (The benefit: a much-needed security buffer between Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Israeli civilians in Jerusalem. But this leaves Palestinians in the eastern part of Jerusalem outside the Palestinian territory, and how will Muslims respond to the city’s Muslim holy sites being under Jewish sovereignty?)
But Peretz can’t challenge Sharon too vigorously on security. He’d rather win. If he appears soft on terrorism, some potential voters will defect to Sharon, hurting Peretz’s chances to win and his ability to install his economic reforms. So Peretz’s stance, in effect, is, I’ll keep you as safe as Sharon, and I’ll keep your job and your wallet safe, too.
This leaves me hoping that Amir Peretz will clone himself and join the Democratic Party. Peretz’s platform is exactly what John Kerry’s should have been last year.
In post-Sept. 11 America, the “war on terror” has obscured President Bush’s cuts to education and human services and his tax relief for the rich. It’s even more tragic in America because Israel really is fighting a war on terrorists: the Palestinians who have blown up cafes, nightclubs and buses full of Israeli civilians during the last several years. America’s war on terror — at least, after the horrors of Sept. 11 — has consisted largely of Bush’s war of choice, not necessity, in Iraq and the famous color-coded alert system.
If Kerry had found the cojones to call Bush on it, how could he have lost? Imagine this campaign: Since 2000, more of you are poor and unemployed. If you think this is good, vote for Bush. If you think it’s bad, vote for me. (As a side benefit, Bush might have felt pressured to improve social services.) Instead, Kerry gave Bush home field advantage in the 2004 Presidential World Series by focusing on the war, whose rules and duration Bush decides. Nobody was swayed by “Bush Lite”: I’m tough like Bush, but don’t you fear, I’ve got what it takes to sound dizzyingly vague about your safety! And Kerry voters said the economy was most important to them anyway.
In wartime, citizens panic in the voting booth and choose the party they think will keep them safe. That party’s economic agenda, then, gets an artificial boost, because by unfortunate accident of political parties, economics and foreign policy are tied.
The purpose of a liberal party is to use government power to reward citizens as human beings, entitling the average working family to a fair standard of living, with education and health care. To get this job done, liberals must separate out and neutralize security, recasting the debate between parties as a debate between economic platforms. That is what Peretz is doing, what Kerry failed to do in 2004, and what the Democrats must do in 2008.
This does not mean Bush gets off the hook for botched intelligence in Iraq. Nor does it mean that anything other than Israel and Palestine sharing Jerusalem is the most stable plan, and the most just. It does not relieve a government’s responsibility for its people’s safety. Too many in Iraq have died for agendas dreamed up in Washington conference rooms, and Israelis deserve to ride buses and go to cafes without fearing Palestinian terrorists. But if liberalism’s creed becomes, “Listen to how we retouch the incumbent’s military strategies,” then liberalism has lost its way.
The Democrats can learn this from the Israeli left now. Of course, they should have remembered it from Bill Clinton in 1992. Then, Kerry would be watching from the Oval Office as Peretz translates “It’s the economy, stupid,” into Hebrew.
Noah Lawrence is a freshman in Saybrook College.