Amir Peretz &mdash from farmer to Labor leader

tel aviv (jta) | Israel’s new political power broker, Amir Peretz, is a former farmer without a college education — but he brings a hard-earned understanding of the growing underclass in the Jewish state.

Peretz, 53, who unseated Shimon Peres as Labor Party chief, is cut from a different cloth than the Israeli elder statesman. Unlike most Labor leaders, he is far from the Ashkenazi elite — a Moroccan-born immigrant who eked out a living raising vegetables before heeding the call of


His career in public service began in Sderot, the hardscrabble Negev desert town that arose from a transit camp where new Sephardi immigrants such as Peretz and his family were settled and promptly forgotten. In 1983, Peretz ran for mayor on the Labor ticket and won.

Five years later he won a seat in the Knesset, where he distinguished himself as a champion of the underprivileged. His brash style and Stalinesque mustache, in many eyes, were appropriate for a man with his militant socialist agenda.

In 1995 Peretz became chairman of the powerful Histadrut trade union federation, waging battles against government plans to privatize and cut public sector budgets. His biggest rival was to be Benjamin Netanyahu, the free-market crusader who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and then as finance minister in the Sharon government.

Since 1999, Peretz has headed Am Echad (One People), a breakaway party from Labor with a primarily social agenda. But he allied the three-member faction with Labor as part of the current government coalition.

With no formal education beyond high school, Peretz lacks the diplomatic polish of most Israeli statesmen, and is expected to cast around Labor for an electioneering partner who can make up for this. Peretz is married, and has four sons and a daughter.