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Thomas L. Friedman: Cautious optimism sprouting in Middle East

JERUSALEM — In October 2000, as the second Palestinian intifada was exploding, I was visiting Jerusalem and arrived at the King David Hotel late at night. As I wrote at the time, the place was utterly deserted. The lobby lights were out. The clerk was sleeping on a couch, and I was reduced to shouting into the darkness in one of the world's great hotels: "Hello. Is anybody home?" The hotel's owner joked back then that the violence had so damaged his hotel business that "we're stealing towels from our guests."

Well, what a difference a cease-fire makes. In the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, the election of Mahmoud Abbas as his successor and the Israeli pullout from Gaza, Jerusalem hotels are again packed. I couldn't help but notice on a stroll around Jerusalem that the famous Cafe Hillel, which I had last visited an hour after it had been blown up by a suicide bomber in September 2003, was beautifully rebuilt.

Where am I going with this? I've always said that in the Middle East, hope is a weed. Give it just a drop of water, a tiny opening and a splash of sunshine, and it will sprout through any crack in the rubble of war.

The best sign of that is the surprise election of Amir Peretz to head Israel's Labor Party. He beat the longtime Labor leader Shimon Peres (a good man) in a party vote last week. Amir Peretz is no weed, but his ability to suddenly sprout up at this time tells you a lot about the mood of cautious optimism here.

Why? Because Amir Peretz is a Moroccan-born Jew in a country that has never elected a non-European Jew as prime minister, even though Jews from Arab, Muslim and Asian lands make up half of Israel. Because Peretz rose inside the Labor Party not by commanding troops in war or holding a big national security job — the career path of every previous prime minister — but by commanding workers on strike as head of the country's biggest labor federation. Because Peretz is an unabashed land-for-peace dove at a time when the country is being led by its biggest hawk, Ariel Sharon. And finally, because Peretz is a modern social democrat, with real socialist roots in an age when the rock stars of Israel are its young, rich high-tech stars, and even the Labor Party is dominated by liberal business executives.

As a former Likud minister, Dan Meridor, said to me, "If the Labor Party were to actually represent the workers again — that would be a revolution!"

Such an anti-establishment politician could only emerge, and have a chance to win the prime ministership (new elections were announced this week for sometime before the end of March), at a time when Israelis feel they can relax a little bit and focus much more on work than war.

And there is a lot to focus on, said Sever Plocker, Yediot's top economics writer: "Israel is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Twenty-five percent of Israelis live below the poverty line — one-third of all Israeli children. We have the highest rate of poverty among people 65 and older in the Western world. Those are terrible numbers."

Many of the business elites within Labor, Plocker said, are ready to back Peretz because they know that "capitalism in Israel has lost its human face" and that if something is not done about that, Israel "is heading for a social explosion."

No sooner was Peretz elected head of Labor than Sharon started talking about poverty. Sharon knows that an Oriental Jew, running on poverty and social issues, could cut deep into his traditional constituency — under the right conditions.

And that is the question: Will the right conditions prevail for Peretz to actually win? The deal just brokered by Condoleezza Rice that will open Gaza's borders to the world, for trade and labor, is really the key. If this deal proceeds, and Gaza is open, it has a chance to become more like Dubai and less like Mogadishu.

If that happens, and only if that happens, the peace process will move forward toward a two-state solution, including the West Bank. And the more that is resolved, the more likely it is that Israelis will consider voting — for the first time — for a social democrat rather than a security hawk. "That would constitute one of the most important earthquakes ever in Israeli politics," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi.

And the more that happens, the more tourists will go to Israel and steal the hotel towels — and not the other way around. Beware, though. Betting on such prolonged calm is never a good bet here. I'd still bring an extra towel when you come — just in case.

New York Times News Service