Politics: Losers or choosers?

Like Peres, it's unlikely that Barak would risk running for political office again if he loses next week.

Peres 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Peres 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The last time Shimon Peres won an election outright was on December 18, 1980 - a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States, 10 days after Beatle John Lennon was shot dead and shortly after smallpox was eradicated. Under the headline: "Mass vote for Peres stuns Rabin camp," Jerusalem Post political correspondent Sarah Honig described Peres as "confident and statesmanlike" following his victory in the Labor Party leadership race over his political nemesis, Yitzhak Rabin. Peres won more than 70 percent of the vote at the party's convention at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. "[Peres's] words had just the right spontaneity, wit and obligatory touches of humility," Honig wrote. "When he rose to give his victory speech, he immediately went to shake Rabin's hand to the applause of the crowd." Nine thousand, six hundred and seventy-four days later, Peres will have an opportunity on Wednesday to win a race for the first time since then when he faces off in a presidential election in the Knesset against Likud MK Reuven Rivlin and Labor MK Colette Avital. Shas's support for Peres would seem to give him the edge, but the vote is being held by secret ballot, and history has proven that it is never smart to gamble on a Peres victory. If Peres loses, it will add to a long string of political losses that could put him in the Guinness Book of World Records for political futility (if they kept such records). Chances are that he would take the loss in stride, as he has before, and continue on with his political career, but it is extremely unlikely that he would ever run for anything again. If the final Winograd report to be released in October forces Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to quit, he could end up with the consolation prize of the premiership. But if he wins the presidency, Peres could change his image as the ultimate political loser, which he inadvertently crafted for himself with his infamous rhetorical question "am I a loser?" in a 1997 speech at a Labor event. People who have worked closely with Peres for decades said he would undoubtedly downplay the historical significance of such a victory. "He's not a euphoric person," said Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, who was Labor's spokesman at the time of Peres's 1980 victory. "He doesn't get excited over a win or a loss. There wasn't a big celebration when he won back then." The presidential race, which initially looked like an easy win for Rivlin, has become a vote of confidence in Peres. Since he formally joined the race on Sunday, the vote has become more about his fate than that of the presidency itself. THE SAME thing has happened with the Labor leadership primary, which will be decided in Tuesday's runoff between former prime minister Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon. What began as a race to succeed Amir Peretz as party leader and defense minister has become about whether Labor members are ready to trust and forgive Barak. Ayalon said this week that if he wins, he would do everything possible to persuade Barak to remain in politics. But continuing to make millions in business would undoubtedly be more tempting for Barak than serving as a junior minister or an opposition MK. As with Peres, it is unlikely that Barak would risk running for political office again if he loses next week. He doesn't want to inherit Peres's image. The fact that the race is do-or-die for him, while Ayalon has just begun his political career, has made Barak proceed very cautiously. He has avoided the press as if it were the plague and proven his repeated statements that although he has not changed, he has learned lessons. The lessons Barak has learned are not about how to run the country or the party better but about how to get elected. His strategy of campaigning directly to Labor members and not through the media and his presentation of the ministers who back him as a team working well together are both intended to prove that he has fixed past mistakes. Barak received the final piece of the puzzle that he needed to repair his reputation on Wednesday, when defeated candidate Ophir Paz-Pines endorsed him. Paz-Pines received an empty promise from Barak to call for Olmert's removal in a few months. Barak got a lot more in return: the fig leaf of one of the top fighters for clean governance, whose backing automatically eases Barak's corrupt image in the eyes of many voters. PERES HAS also learned lessons from his many losses, the most important of which is to take nothing for granted. He declared his candidacy on the last possible day, after guaranteeing beyond a reasonable doubt that he would have Shas's support. He has made an effort to meet personally with every MK, which he did not do before he lost the 2000 presidential election to Moshe Katsav. And he is having Olmert and others do the dirty work for him of threatening MKs not to rebel and vote against him. The Labor race will not affect Olmert very much, because he knows that whoever wins will first put on a show of trying to overthrow him to please Labor voters, then settle comfortably into the defense minister's chair for an extended period. The presidential race, however, is crucial in Olmert's fight for his political survival. If Rivlin wins, Olmert will have to deal with a lifelong foe in Beit Hanassi. But if Peres wins, the president will be a grateful ally. And it would prove that Olmert is such a political genius that he could even do the impossible: get Shimon Peres elected. Jerusalem Post archivist Elaine Moshe contributed to this report.