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News and Op/Ed

Poor Effort
Knesset Member Amir Peretz (Labor). 
Peretz could launch a new war on poverty.

Come March 29, Amir Peretz will likely have the opportunity to launch a new force in Israeli governance: social justice.

The prospect of helping the poor is an issue that has long been ignored in both Israel and the United States, two nations that are most important for American Jews.

Interestingly, the right wing assumed power in both Israel and the United States during roughly the same time period, and ever since the concept of solving the problems produced by a system of economic classism has usually been at best a side issue. In America, even the most honorable presidential candidates downplayed the issue and the more liberal members of Congress - especially African-Americans representing urban areas - were not taken seriously by most Americans. Peretz set the stage for injecting social justice into the consciousness of Israel's body politic when he was elected leader of the Labor Party. Maybe his potential contribution could help galvanize America where a substantial number of Jews have been increasingly affected by social conditions.

The veteran union leader strongly indicated last November that he will make the plight of low-income Israelis a key issue in the March 28 elections. Of course, there has not been much of a political campaign in large part because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke. Had there been a live campaign so far, Peretz's chances of becoming prime minister would have been negligible, but he is likely to claim considerable power after the elections to press his pet issues.

The conventional wisdom is that Sharon's new Kadima Party will win the largest number of Knesset seats, roughly 40 of them, but Labor could win up to 20 seats, and the two parties will form a coalition government along with other parties. If acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's party does this well and he becomes prime minister in his own right, he will need a 61-vote majority to implement his policies. Only if Olmert's interim government falters before March will the Likud Party have a reasonable chance to dominate the Knesset. At the current rate, Kadima is trusted by most Israelis to maintain security. Olmert will need Labor's support on an ongoing basis, and that will give Peretz plenty of cards to play to boost Israel's underclass.

It is long overdue that a political figure made improved social conditions a priority. After Sharon was elected prime minister, his then finance minister - Benjamin Netanyahu - introduced reaganomics to Israeli society. His policies of tax cuts and program reductions would rob from the poor and give to the rich, and now he is once again leader of Likud.

Perhaps Peretz's plans could be tried several thousand miles to the west where Republicans have yet to meet a tax they do not want to cut to help the rich nor a service to eliminate to make life more miserable for the poor. 

Poverty is very much a Jewish issue in the United States. The New York Jewish Week reported in early January that in New York City and its suburbs alone, according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, nearly 350,000 Jews are either living in poverty or are close to the poverty line, In its latest study, the council reported that 104,000 Jews in 53,000 households in the New York region are close to poverty because they cannot meet enough of the rising costs of living with their middle-class incomes. This is in addition to 244,000 Jews who live under the poverty line, according to Jewish Week.

The Katrina disaster, which in particular victimized vulnerable poor people, touched off the first major signs that Americans might be concerned about poverty.

The right wing in America transformed the war on poverty into the war on the poor. Perhaps Peretz will launch a war on poverty in Israel. Perhaps the idea might spread to America's shores. We'll find out starting on March 29.

Bruce Ticker is the editor of Crisis: Israel. A Voice for Diverse Commentary.