Oh. My. God.
Amir Peretz (a man most non-Israelis have probably never heard of) has become leader of Israel's labour party. It's been a long time since anything interesting happened in the Labor party, but this is worth paying attention to because it is going to completely transform the Israeli political landscape.
Peretz -- who was elected under heavy suspicion of voting fraud and 'irregularities' -- is the head of the Histadrut union, a populist hack with a trademark Stalin-esque mustache who is good at stirring up trouble and talking about the poor but whose economic policies hark back to Israel's socialist days and who, it hardly needs saying, does not have the authority and is not enough of a hard-hitter to handle the conflict with the Palestinians (he is, incidentally, a member of Peace Now). A few years ago, he left Labor to set up the 'Am Ehad' faction, which won 3 seats (he came back to Labor just last year). That probably says it all about his power, when it comes to the crunch, to pull in the votes and is probably an indication of what Labor can expect to get next time around. Whilst Labor has become identified with the 'elites' in the past few years, Peretz attracts the exact opposite type of voter -- the poor and the desperate. It is reasonable to assume that most of the people who voted for Labor last time around (and these were a limited bunch, anyway...), and who are voting on the peace process, not economics, will move elsewhere.
What is interesting is that this complete earthquake in Labor comes at a time when Ariel Sharon is contemplating shaking up the Likud as well, and setting up his own party. Sharon wants to leave behind the Likud's rowdy central committee, together with its extremists, and set up a new, more centrist party. If he does, some members of the secularist Shinui will join; most of the Likud cabinet has already announced it's prepared to jump ship; and this latest development will only make it more likely that a big, big chunk of Labor MKs will join him too.
In theory, this is great -- a sure vote-winner, Israel's pragmatists coming together -- but it does leave me worried that with one mega-party representing an enormous center, there will be no real opposition. This is completely unhealthy for a democracy, but is a very probable scenario.
On the other hand, even if Sharon does not jump, there will be some kind of re-alignment as I simply cannot imagine most of Labor's MKs functioning under Peretz. Perhaps they will all go to Shinui under Tommy Lapid, although Shinui holds together members with a wide range of positions on the ME conflict, and an influx of Laborites would simply be an 'old Labor' putsch. This would be the scenario in which least, realistically, changed -- Likud vs Shinui, full of Labor MKs, rather than Likud vs Labor -- but there is a feeling of a real shake-up in the air and I hope something more radical happens; there hasn't been a real opposition, a true alternative to the Likud, for ages now.
Either way, it truly marks the end of an era in Israeli politics, an era when Labor dominated the political map. How the political cards will be reshuffled, how the map will be re-drawn, remains to be seen. It may all happen sooner than anyone would have predicted only yesterday, as Peretz has already promised to take Labor out of the coalition, meaning the fall of the government. Will this leave enough time for everyone to find themselves new political homes? One thing's for sure: it's going to be an exciting few months in Israeli politics.
RELATED: Am Echad; Shaister; Faith in Nathan (for a positive reaction); Dutchblog Israel.