Labor leader Amir Peretz is trying to breathe new life into the battered party, still reeling from its abysmal performance in Israel’s April 9 election under then-chairman Avi Gabbay, which saw it sink to an unprecedented six-seat low.

Recent weeks have seen Peretz attend dozens of political events in an effort to broaden Labor’s electoral appeal, but despite his efforts and the alliance with Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party, even the most favorable polls project Labor will secure, at best, seven mandates.

In a special interview with Israel Hayom, Peretz spoke candidly about Labor’s dire state, while lambasting the Blue and White Party, the center-left faction headed by Benny Gantz and co-founder Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Blue and White was formed ahead of the April 9 elections as a union of Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, Yesh Atid and Telem, headed by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. The faction’s foursome of leaders also includes former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

While the faction proved a worthy adversary for the Likud Party in April, winning 35 Knesset seats, heading into the final stretch of the September election campaign the growing discord among its four co-leaders has become increasingly public.

“This is a party devoid of ideological infrastructure. Everyone there is moving in a different direction,” Peretz said of Blue and White. “They may have been able to hide it in the first act, but in the second act, it’s harder to hide. What links [Yesh Atid MK] Yael German and [IRP MK] Zvika Hauser? Or Ya’alon, who wants to annex [Judea and Samaria], and [Yesh Atid whip] Ofer Shelah, who supports the two-state solution?”

Peretz said he believes that Lapid will push to disband the faction soon after the election.

“Blue and White is a party with an expiration date, and that will come immediately after the elections. The party is making a very public effort to hide the rifts within its ranks, and Lapid is highly unlikely to remain part of it. Blue and White will split back into three parties after the elections,” he predicted.

Peretz further urged Labor voters who, frustrated by the party’s own political discord, had voted for Blue and White in April, to return to the fold.

“I call on Labor voters who followed Blue and White thinking they will be able to replace [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu—you need to understand that it’s not the size of the party that matters, but rather how large the bloc is. Unlike Blue and White, which only offers a chance to replace Netanyahu, we offer the opportunity to change his policies. We are the only ones to offer a socio-economic agenda, which many have criticized us for, but there is no difference between [Yamina bloc member Naftali] Bennett and Lapid with respect to their socio-economic outlook.”

Peretz further stressed that Lapid had refused his invitation to attend a public debate on economic issues not once, but twice.

But can Labor really improve its electoral outlook? Peretz believes so.

“The polls do affect the dynamics, but I propose waiting patiently there. We have a certain platform, which is very popular among younger voters and middle-class couples. Our objective is 15 mandates, and I have no problem saying that,” he said.

“I hope that we take four seats from Blue and White, two from the Arab and Druze sectors, and three from the moderate right. I estimate that half of the votes that went to Orly in the last election and half of the votes that went to [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon’s [Kulanu] party will now go to us. So 15 mandates for Labor-Gesher is feasible.”

In the past two decades, Labor has become notorious for its leaders’ short terms in office.

“The party is in dire crisis. There are no resources. There are debts. But the biggest crisis was how disheartened the activists are. Many were reluctant at first, but today we have thousands. We have to translate that into ballot [wins],” he said.

As for the recent departure of popular Knesset member Stav Shaffir from Labor to the Democratic Union, Peretz simply said that “she ended up where she feels that she naturally belongs. I wish her the best of luck.”

In recent years, Peretz has often been mentioned as a presidential candidate for 2021, which is when President Reuven Rivlin’s term in office will end.

“I had planned to run for president before the [second] election was announced, and many approached me on the subject,” he revealed.

“The majority of the Israeli public sees me as a person worthy of the presidency, especially given the rifts in society. But from the moment they called an election, and I was elected Labor chairman, my mission is to rehabilitate the party. It will be a long, 10-year journey. I won’t be a presidential candidate in two years. I intend to dedicate my all to get Labor back to where it’s supposed to be. I hope we can build the infrastructure in a short period of time so that we can succeed in the long run.”

Peretz further defended the decision to join forces with Gesher. “The connection with Orly is amazing and it fosters positive energy,” he said. “She is a courageous, inspired leader, who believes in a social revolution and advocates for peace.”

Amir Peretz and Orly Levy-Abekasis at a campaign event in Ramat Gan on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

“I reject any invocation of the ‘ethnic demon’ in this election campaign,” he continued, using the Israeli term for the divide between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews. “We’re waging a class struggle, because when you fight for raising the minimum wage, Russian and Ethiopian-speaking immigrants, Israeli Arabs and Jews can all relate to it. The party we have built, Labor-Gesher, is a political home for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”

But what if the opportunity arises to join a Netanyahu-led government, with or without Levy-Abekasis?

“We’re not discounting Likud, but we won’t sit in a Netanyahu government,” he said.

Commenting on the security tensions on the Israel-Gaza border, Peretz, who is credited for pushing for the development of the Iron Dome air-defense system during his short stint as defense minister, said, “There is unrest in all sectors. Netanyahu is perpetuating the situation in Gaza because he does not want to resolve the issue as a whole.”

Hamas military leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, he said, “is well-aware of Netanyahu’s weaknesses and knows he can exploit them during election time. He [Sinwar] gets everything he wants and manages to send the message that the only thing Israel responds to is force. I prefer firing off words, not missiles. Iron Dome, which affords Netanyahu extraordinary diplomatic leeway, is not being used to promote a diplomatic solution.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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