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Rocking toward a gerontocracy?
Gil Stern Stern Hoffman
Perhaps in another country Sharon's and Peres's combined age would be considered a liability.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke fondly of his first meeting with former prime minister Shimon Peres in a press conference at Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolow on Thursday. David Ben-Gurion introduced Sharon to Peres in 1953 when Sharon was the 25-year-old commander of the 101st brigade and Peres was a 30-year-old Defense Ministry director-general. The two men were the leaders of opposite sides of the political map for much of their careers, but Sharon said that there was always a mutual respect between them. Peres and Sharon first worked together politically in 1984 when, after months of vicious attacks on each other, they met for four hours in a private residence in Saviyon. It was the first long talk between the two men and it resulted in Peres becoming prime minister for the first time. Sharon mediated a national-unity government between Peres and Yitzhak Shamir by suggesting that the two become alternating prime ministers. Journalist Uri Dan reported the scoop about the deal the following day in The Jerusalem Post. The fondness between Israel's elder statesmen grew in recent years as their political views shifted closer together. Sharon as prime minister formed two national-unity governments in which he cooperated with Peres in making many key decisions on the country's future. Sharon told Peres that he wanted their generation to solve Israel's problems before they finished their political careers. The two men made plans to run again for the leadership of Likud and Labor and form another national-unity government together. But two obstacles got in the way of Sharon and Peres en route to the governmental wedding canopy. They had prepared for challenges from former prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, but it ended up being Amir Peretz and the so-called Likud rebel MKs who got in the way of their plans. Sharon's new Kadima party can be considered a bypass route on the way to the political marriage between Sharon and Peres. Peres announced on Wednesday that he had decided to join Sharon in what he called "a coalition for peace and development" in which they would cooperate immediately after the election to advance "creative ideas for achieving peace and security." No one knows what the two men truly have in mind for the country's future, but Sharon and Peres have had extensive discussions on the matter. Peres would not have risked his international reputation by leaving Labor were it not for his confidence that his partnership with Sharon would lead to serious changes in the country. SHARON WILL turn 78 in February, ahead of the March 28 election. Peres celebrated his 82nd birthday in August. If the polls are correct and Kadima comes to power, Israel will become a gerontocracy - a country ruled by its elders. Peres and Sharon take pride in being super-healthy and working around the clock despite their age and the prime minister's girth. They also like to brag about the long lives of their family members. "I'm not going anywhere any time soon," Peres defiantly told reporters the day before losing the November 9 Labor primary. "I love my job. I'm not sick. I'm not even old! I'm healthy. I'm not tired, and I don't need any rest." Sharon joked on Thursday that "78 is the right age to start and run forward (Kadima in Hebrew) to a new path." When asked whether he might run again after another term in office, Sharon said last week, "I will continue my job as long as I can and as long as there is a need." Netanyahu has commented in closed conversations recently that "history proves that gerontocracies don't last." He noted the succession of elderly men who each ruled the Soviet Union briefly before Mikhail Gorbachev. In its entry on gerontocracies, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia's top example is China of the 1980s, which was led by a group of people called "the Eight Immortials of Communist China." According to the encyclopedia, it was said of that government that "80-year-olds called meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire." Similarly, Sharon and Peres have seen generations of would-be prime ministers younger than they come and go. Avraham Burg once compared Peres to an evergreen tree under which no one else in Labor could blossom. The current young crop of leaders in Labor breathed a collective sigh of relief when Peres left the party. Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines blames the preference of Israeli voters for older leaders on Netanyahu and Barak. He said that Israelis have developed mistrust for any politicians younger than Sharon and Peres's generation. "The unsuccessful experience with the failed premierships of Netanyahu and Barak has made Israelis shy away from younger leaders," Paz-Pines said. "Young candidates will have to convince the public that they can be trusted to lead the nation." Perhaps in another country, Sharon's and Peres's combined age of nearly 160 would be considered a liability, but not in Israel. Strategists for Sharon and Peres intend to portray their decades of experience as their ultimate asset in a race against Peretz, who has never been a minister. Expect to see many campaign commercials highlighting Sharon and Peres's service to the state and contrasting it with Peretz's experiences leading strikes that shut down the economy. Kadima's strategists said they were looking for archive material of Sharon and Peres going back decades. The ultimate clip that they wish they could find is of a meeting between a young brigade commander and the defense ministry director-general that no one knew at the time would be so fateful.
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