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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Shimon Peres doesn't really need to be president. As it is, he's the most presidential figure in Israeli public life.
He doesn't need the title to get invited to whatever high-level conference or convention he feels like attending, and he's assured of being a guest of honor. He doesn't really want the mansion in Jerusalem and the limousines, either; his wife, Sonia, won't move from their apartment in Ramat Avivim anyway.
Shas may betray Peres again
Love him or loathe him, Peres is the only thing this country has resembling an elder statesman. The hostility felt by many toward him here stands in almost inverse proportion to the popularity and respect he commands abroad.
But like an inveterate gambler unable to resist the pull of one last throw of the dice, the man can't help himself. Even the knowledge that he has a good chance of replacing Ehud Olmert should the prime minister be forced out of office isn't stopping him. There's a political contest next month and he has to be in on the game. It's part of his DNA. To cash in his chips while he's ahead and watch this one from the sidelines would mean that he wouldn't be Shimon Peres anymore.
So what if he is going to be 84 in two months. Politics has been his lifeblood since his teens, and he's not going to stop now. Besides, when better to be president than today, with a hamstrung, chronically weak government in power? President Peres would be free to embark on his own diplomatic grand initiative, free from the shackles of parliament and coalition, to spin webs of international intrigue and finally lay the foundations of his beloved New Middle East.
So why is he waiting until the last minute to announce his candidacy? No one has been stung so many times as Peres by perfidious allies, forced to see victory snatched away on the finishing line. This time he plans to leave nothing to chance. He has taken on the two best political strategists in the business, Eyal Arad and Reuven Adler - the masterminds of Ariel Sharon's rise to power. The idea is to keep his opponents guessing until the last moment.
With the unstable political situation, and facing an opponent, Reuven Rivlin, who has been steadily building his campaign for two years, Peres needs as much room as possible to maneuver behind the scenes.
A premature announcement could only cause him harm.
This is probably the best chance he will ever have of capturing the prize. The right wing, which will never forgive him for the Oslo Accords, has its lowest parliamentary representation in 40 years - only 21 MKs from the Likud and National Union/NRP. This, in theory, should be the day the eternal loser finally wins.
But he's aware that it's not that simple, that anything can happen in a Knesset secret ballot. Anyone might stab him in the dark. Even his prot g , Acting President and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who never would have had a career in national politics without Peres's backing, is testing the waters. She made a secret visit to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef last Friday to find out whether she has a chance of gaining his support. News of the visit was leaked and Itzik was portrayed as a turncoat in the press. So Peres is playing hardball this time.
Peres has two main hurdles to overcome. The first is Rivlin's popularity, which reaches much wider than the shrunken Likud. The second is the unpopularity of his main backer, Olmert. The prime minister's rivals within Kadima might be reluctant to vote for Peres, knowing his victory would give Olmert a much needed boost.
Another thorn in his side is Labor, the party to which he gave three quarters of his life. Its official candidate, Colette Avital, another former favorite of Peres, is expected to drop out after the first round of voting. But how many Laborites will then choose Peres? Some of them are still furious at him for defecting from the party a year and a half ago. Now could be payback time.
Ironically, at the moment, the only party Peres can depend on for total loyalty is Shas, which betrayed him in the same race seven years ago by voting for Moshe Katsav. Rabbi Yosef deeply regrets having disappointed his old friend, and all signs point to him being determined to make amends.
In a fragmented and fractious Knesset, party allegiance will mean little on the day of the vote. For once in his career, Peres is taking an election campaign seriously, his advisers are analyzing every MK's intentions, prospective supporters are being brought in for a quiet chat, favors are being called in, promises made. Shimon is in his element.