Aging political lion roars again


Israel: After recent political defeats, Shimon Peres has found new life by taking up the challenge of finding peace in the Middle East.

March 04, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Twice in the past year, Shimon Peres - former Israeli prime minister, former defense and foreign minister, former head of the left-of-center Labor Party - seemed to be a spent force, cast aside as a visionary out of step with Israeli reality.

Last summer, Israel's parliament rejected him as a candidate for president in favor of a relative unknown, Moshe Katsav. In December, the Labor Party refused to back him as a candidate for prime minister. Then a left-wing party did the same.

But anyone who assumed that Peres' long political career was over underestimated the resilience and residual popularity of this 77-year-old phoenix, who has seldom been far from the center of power since becoming a deputy defense minister in 1959 in a government led by David Ben-Gurion.

With the enthusiastic support of right-wing Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, the Labor Party and much of the public, Peres is emerging again from the ashes of defeat to challenge the odds in pursuit of regional peace.

Last week, Peres electrified his audience at a Labor Party conference, hurling caustic barbs at those opposed to joining a Sharon-led government.

"We just now emerged from a great defeat. Do you have a role in this, or don't you?" he asked Shlomo Ben Ami, foreign minister in the defeated Labor government of Ehud Barak.

"Yes," the audience responded loudly, "yes!"

Whether this region becomes mired in worse bloodshed or turns the corner toward peace in coming months depends heavily on the working partnership that develops between Sharon and Peres, two wily veterans of the nation's violent birth who have survived the worst that Israeli politics can administer.

Pessimists, including some in his own party, see Peres' appointment as foreign minister as mere window dressing. Sharon, they say, will simply use the Nobel laureate's international reputation to prettify a drive to crush the 5- month-old Palestinian uprising, tighten Israel's occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza and set back the peace process even further. At best, they anticipate a government that produces only stalemate. But Peres isn't among them.

"He's the ultimate optimist," says Uri Savir, who entered negotiations with the Palestinians in Oslo under Peres' guidance. "He will always try to make something out of an impossible situation."

Peres' resourcefulness, ambition and wide-ranging intellect were evident at a young age. Born in Poland, he emigrated to Palestine with his family in 1934 and as a young man rose swiftly through the ranks of the Mapai Party, forerunner of Labor. By the end of World War II, he was chief of manpower for the Hagannah, the underground army that grew into the Israeli Defense Forces.

From his first years in the Defense Ministry, he wanted to push Israel to the forefront of technology. As the ministry's director-general in the 1950s, Peres arranged a weapons deal with France that led to Israel's acquiring a nuclear reactor, the beginning of the country's nuclear weapons program.

Since 1969, he has held a succession of Cabinet posts in governments led by the Labor Party and in coalition governments that included both Labor and the Likud - serving as defense minister three times, foreign minister twice and prime minister three times. But he was never elected prime minister in his own right.

Peres' strength as a politician is in forming coalitions to advance a policy goal. "While sleeping, he's building new coalitions," says Ron Pundak, one of the initiators of the Oslo peace process.

His weakness is his image as a European elitist who sometimes has a tin ear for public sentiment. He lost the prime minister's race in 1996 in part because of his determined pursuit of peace negotiations in the face of national anguish over a series of fatal Palestinian bomb attacks.

His stealthy creativity fostered one of Israel's most noteworthy diplomatic achievements - the 1993 agreement with the Palestinians - but his countrymen have also viewed that creativity as treachery. As foreign minister, in 1987, he secretly worked out a plan for an international peace conference with King Hussein of Jordan without informing either then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir or members of Shamir's Likud bloc. When the plan was finally presented to Shamir, the prime minister denounced it.

Yitzhak Rabin, his fellow Labor Party member, once dubbed Peres "an indefatigable schemer," a label Prime Minister Ehud Barak resurrected in fending off a challenge from Peres in the recent election campaign.

Recent comments by Peres suggest he'll try to test the limits of how far he can go under Sharon, who pledges not to resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority until all violence stops and who wants to put negotiations for a permanent peace settlement on hold.

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