In his campaign to win election as the next prime minister, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz is stressing the economy and his goal of reversing Israel’s growing rate of poverty and income gap.
But even his staunchest ally concedes he has an uphill battle.
"In Israel, unfortunately, people donít vote based on socio-economic conditions," said Ofer Eini, who in January succeeded Peretz as chairman of the Histadrut Labor Union.
"The most important subjects are the political and security agendas," he explained through a translator during a recent visit here.
An analysis of political platforms (security and the Israel-Palestinian conflict) reveals that "there is no real difference" between Labor and the Kadima Party started by Ariel Sharon, Eini noted.
He said, however, that Israelis are "still not ripe to make a sharp change to vote for Amir regarding socio-economic solutions, and so it will vote in the middle for Kadima. But if you look at its socio-economic philosophy, it is not very different from Likud."
Labor and Likud officials conceded over the weekend that they had little chance of overtaking Kadima for the top spot in the March 28 vote.
Eini pointed out that there are many Israelis who plan to vote against Likud because of the actions of its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he served as finance minister in Sharon’s government.
"Absolutely in this election there are people who wish to punish Bibi for his actions," he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Netanyahu resigned from the post in August, citing what he said was his fear that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza would turn that Palestinian area into a "base of Islamic terror" that would endanger Israel.
During his more than two-year tenure as finance minister, Netanyahu adopted a pro-business economic policy and cut welfare benefits.
Eini said Netanyahu deserves the wrath of the Israeli working man because of his "anti-union" actions that "harmed the accomplishments we achieved over many years"
For instance, he said, Netanyahu was the author of legislation that slashed workers’ pensions by 30 percent, and increased the retirement age of women from 60 to 64 and of men from 65 to 67.
"Thousands of [male] workers between the ages of 65 and 67 found themselves with no pensions," Eini said, explaining that Netanyahu did that by changing the calculations of companies that set aside money for pensions.
Also because Netanyahu cut pensions, Eini said, a retiree who would have received 5,000 shekels each month will now receive 3,500 shekels.
Labor in its campaign is trying to portray Kadima and Likud with the same brush, saying its leaders are cigar-smoking, poverty-ignoring capitalists.
Eini said that Labor selecting Peretz as its leader already has helped workers because "all parties are now talking about socio-economic issues."
"Even Bibi is saying he is going to close the [economic] gap," he said with a smile.
Asked about the wisdom of Peretz in stressing socio-economic issues if it doesn’t bring votes, Eini said he agreed with the strategy.
"It is not a mistake by Amir," he insisted. "Someone who runs for election should say what he believes and what the public wants to hear. Amir throughout his years [as Histadrut chairman] spoke about the social problems and the increasing social gap and the unemployment increase. He continues to emphasize these issues in order to speak to the lowest economic strata in Israel."
In his campaign, Peretz has promised to enact a law that would increase the minimum wage by $1,000 over three years, one that would require employers to provide workers with a pension, and another that would increase the number of medications covered under the government health plan, Eini said.
"The Histadrut supports Amir because of his ideas," he said. "We are helping him because we want him to be prime minister: because he is for the workers."
Eini, 47, of Beersheva, said he worked with Peretz for seven years in the Histadrut, serving toward the end of 2004 as the No. 2 man when he was selected chairman of its trade union division.
In that capacity, he led the port workers in their fight against Netanyahu’s restructuring and partial privatization of the port system, winning substantial compensation for them: 100,000 shekels for each port worker.
The Histadrut, Israel’s largest federation of unions representing 25 major unions, has 700,000 members: 450,000 in the public sector and 250,000 in the private.
Eini said one of his goals is to increase the number of unionized private sector workers because they are the lowest paid in the country and most have no pension or collective agreements.
But he has learned that strikes may not be the answer.
"For me, a strike is a means not a target: and it is the last means," he said. "I believe the Histadrut above all must be a strong trade union and its social influence must be much stronger. And a strong trade union doesn’t have to hold many strikes.
"A strong trade union is one whose strength is in its professionalism and in its capacity to negotiate with employers to bargain through collective agreements."