Analysis: Why Peres is a risky investment for president

No other Israeli politician has accrued as much liability in his career.

By ANSHEL PFEFFER
October 22, 2006 23:15
Analysis: Why Peres is a risky investment for president

peres smiles 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Let's first answer the basic questions. Does Shimon Peres want to be president? Despite his evasive answers over the last few days and his protestations that he hasn't set up a campaign headquarters, there is absolutely no question he would do almost anything for the job, the crowning achievement of his 60-year political career. As president, he would command almost universal respect and could carry on pushing his pet peace projects, without having to worry about maintaining a presence in the Knesset or around the cabinet table. The job was made for him. Second, does Prime Minister Ehud Olmert want him as president? Other prime ministers, Ehud Barak for example, were threatened by the idea of President Peres interfering in their grand diplomatic plans, negotiating with the whole world behind their backs. For Olmert, a president from Kadima, especially one with the high approval ratings that Peres has been receiving in the latest polls which asked the public who their preferred president is, could be a significant boost to his party's flagging fortunes. Right now the government hasn't any real agenda with which Peres could interfere. Instead, a grateful Peres, if he were to be elected, could help Olmert gain support for new initiatives. As things stand, Olmert has no other realistic candidate to field against his old rival Reuven Rivlin's surprisingly strong campaign. An additional bonus would be having Peres out of the Knesset, making room for the next man on Kadima's list, ex-general Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, the kind of person any party would be glad to have gracing its back-benches. Those questions were easy, but now who can answer this: Can Peres win the presidential vote? Olmert has made it clear that he won't endorse him unless the answer is an unqualified yes. Having no candidate is better than investing all your political capital in the losing one. Ask Ehud Barak, who put his money on the wrong horse six years ago. By no coincidence, that horse was also named Shimon. Olmert might be many things, but superstitious isn't one of them. He hasn't bought in to the myth of Peres as eternal loser. He would endorse him if he sincerely believed his chances were good. His reluctance to give Peres even a hint of support up until now is due to the sound advice he has been receiving, from among others coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, that Peres is almost definitely in for another defeat. So why is Olmert's team so skeptical of Peres's candidacy? The parliamentary arithmetic seems to be on his side. Peres should be reasonably assured of votes from four parties, his home base Kadima, his former home Labor (which will have little choice, as Colette Avital will likely drop out in the first round of voting), Meretz, which obviously prefers the father of Oslo to right-wing Ruby, and the Pensioners Party, who of course can't possibly not vote for an octogenarian president. Altogether, that makes 60 MKs. Peres needs just one more vote for the necessary absolute majority, and he should be getting 11 of those from Shas. Rabbi Ovadya Yossef genuinely likes Peres and gave the order to vote for Katsav and not him in 2000 with a heavy heart (After scuppering Peres's premiership in 1996 when he refrained from supporting him against Netanyahu). He will be extremely reluctant to let his old friend down again. So Peres has a potential of 71 MKs backing him. Then why is smart money still on Rivlin? The answer can be found in the motion being brought by one of Peres's main backers, Labor MK Yoram Marciano, to make the Knesset vote for president an open one. Endorsement by Olmert, Yosef and any other party leader is not enough. The only thing that can deter potential defectors is publicity. MKs voting against their official party line under the veil of the secret ballot was what did in Peres last time, and is the chief worry of his camp now. And contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Shas that stabbed him in the back. Some of the party's MKs actually voted for Peres, some with the rabbi's silent approval, other out of the hope that Peres would pardon their hero Aryeh Deri. No, it was a number of defections in Labor and of at least one Arab MK that cost Peres the vote and propelled Katsav into the presidential mansion. But if Knesset secret ballots are prone to horse-trading and betrayals, why should that only go against Peres? Doesn't Rivlin also stand to lose some of the votes ostensibly promised to him by double-dealing MKs? Of course. No candidate can be totally confident of receiving anyone's vote. Who knows how any MK will act in the privacy of the voting booth? But when you analyze the common reasons for not toeing the party line in presidential elections, Peres seems to be at a distinct disadvantage. The obvious reasons for voting for a future president should be the candidate's character, his experience and standing, naturally his ideological leanings and of course which parties are backing him. But for many MKs, there are other considerations. One of the main questions an MK is going to be asking is to whom does he want to cause more political damage, Olmert or Binyamin Netanyahu? It would be hardly an over-exaggeration to say that neither figure is very popular in the Knesset, but most MKs, on either side of the house are more interested in the demise of newcomer Kadima than the already weakened Likud. And besides, Rivlin's losing won't be that harmful to Netanyahu, as he has been very careful to keep his distance from Likudnik Rivlin, enabling him to run a seemingly non-partisan campaign. But the defeat of an Olmert-endorsee (and Peres won't run as anything else) could be near-fatal to Kadima. There even may be some Kadima MKs prepared to vote Rivlin in the hope of hastening Olmert's replacement at the head of the beleaguered party. Politics is all about going for the jugular. There is also an intense personal side to the presidential race. What better chance for a frustrated MK to settle an old score than changing his vote secretly. There is remarkably little animosity towards Rivlin in the Knesset, who spent his term as speaker making friends on both sides of the aisle. He probably had his eye on the presidency already three years ago. Peres, on the other hand, has made just as much enemies during his long decades in politics as he has admirers. There are so many grudges still lurking. Just one glaring example: even if Amir Peretz was to eventually agree to Labor officially backing Peres, who can prevent him and others from taking their secret revenge on the man who refused to accept the outcome of last year's Labor primaries and joined Kadima rather than accept Peretz's leadership. Peres's indefatigable supporters claim quite correctly that no other Israeli politician has amassed as much credit in his career. Unfortunately for them, no one has accrued as much liability, either.

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