In Defense of Defection

Winston Churchill was elected to the British Parliament for the first time in 1900, representing the Conservative party. Four years later he “crossed the floor” to the Liberals, where he went on to serve as a cabinet minister under a number of governments. After losing three successive elections he returned to the Conservatives in 1924. “He was not a party man,” wrote one of Churchill’s, biographers, Paul Johnson, adding, “His loyalty belonged to the national interest, and his own.” Sir Winston himself joked, “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”

Were Churchill alive today and living in Israel, he would be called “deserter” and “loser” and subjected to recordings of his erstwhile declarations as proof of his being a spineless, opportunistic job-hopper. The political commentators would bring the full force of their stock of metaphors to bear in describing his zigzagging.

But to Britain’s great fortune, Churchill was impervious to such criticism, and the British people were favored with their most admired premier of all time: “Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable,” as Johnson began his tribute to the leader who did not capitulate to Adolf Hitler.

Like Churchill, Amir Peretz nearly lost his political career as a result of ministerial responsibility for a military failure: Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, Peretz as defense minister in the Second Lebanon War. Both were kicked out of their jobs but “held onto the wheel,” in the words of Ariel Sharon – they kept fighting and waited for their turn to come around again. Like Churchill, Peretz wandered between parties in accordance with his political convenience, and he is now in the lap of Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnuah. Last weekend, as expected, he ran the gantlet of humiliation on the television talk shows and was subjected to being publicly spit on, metaphorically, in the Friday newspapers.

These denunciations are preposterous. The party loyalty that Peretz’s critics worship at is meaningless. A party is nothing more than a political mechanism designed to impose order on the selection of candidates for elected positions in local and national government. You can switch parties, just as you can switch Internet or cellphone providers, or banks. It is not always pleasant, sometimes you must wait a few business days or pay an exit fee, but there’s no reason to handcuff politicians to parties when they don’t want to stay.

The history of all Israeli political parties is filled with splits and mergers, starting in the time of the Ottoman Empire. This goes for parties on the left, right and center, for the religious and the Arab parties. Most Israeli politicians have gone through a number of political groupings in the course of their careers. It did not prevent the establishment, growth and development of the state, nor did it harm democratic rule or the quality of leadership. What was right for the generation of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, of Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid, of Sharon and Ehud Olmert, is also right for Livni, Peretz and Amram Mitzna, the heads of Hatnuah.

These are no surprising figures, but rather seasoned politicians whose records are known to their voters, and everyone knows what they stand for. So what if the three of them lost in their party primaries and left their respective parties? Does losing the primary obligate them to pack up and go home? They are putting themselves forward as candidates on a different ticket and allowing the public to judge. They cannot even be accused of abandoning their ideologies: Peretz did not switch from Labor to Likud, or to Habayit Hayehudi; he joined a party with a similar platform and an identical voter base to that of his former party. Only the ballot slip has changed, not the person nor his positions. The public accepts these changes, and polls show it voting for Livni and against Shaul Mofaz, who beat her in the Kadima primary and remained as party chairman.

Israel’s great leaders – Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Sharon – were great mainly because they were not deterred by defeats, resignations, animosities and insults. They wiped the spit from their face after each misfortune and remained in politics until their time came. Today’s politicians, too, will at the end of the day be judged by their actions and not by their party affiliations. Just like Winston Churchill.

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