Peres: Not such a bad record after all

peres 298.88 (photo credit: )
peres 298.88
(photo credit: )
Vice Premier Shimon Peres's first significant political victory didn't make headlines in The Jerusalem Post. Back then, in November 1959, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the US and a moon walk still seemed unimaginable, Peres, then a 36-year-old Defense Ministry director-general, won a spot as Knesset member. It's a post he's held ever since. Despite his successful 46-year political tenure in Israel's parliament, Peres has a long history of losing significant elections going back to the 1970s, including five losses at bids for prime minister. If this were a Hallmark movie about an aging politician in his last bid to lead the country, Vice Premier Shimon Peres would have bested his rival MK Amir Peretz in Wednesday's Labor Party primaries, thus proving the value of perseverance against all odds. In real life, however, his unexpected defeat, following poll predictions of anywhere from 9 to 28 percent victory over Peretz, would have been described as stunning were it not for his history of political losses. To be fair, not everything he touches tarnishes. A 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Peres has served as finance minister and foreign minister. While he was defense minister, the Israel Defense Forces successfully executed the Entebbe raid in 1976, in which some 100 hostages were rescued from Uganda. He has authored 10 books and helped develop Israel's aviation and hi-tech industry. And he was prime minister not once, but three times, once as acting prime minister. It's actually a miraculous record for a man who chronically fails at the polls. In jest, Peres has been known to point out that he has won a leadership election. In 1944 he won the post of secretary-general of Hanoar Haoved. But his magic charm, best exhibited in his youth, had mostly disappeared by the 1970s. In many cases, only a few votes stood between him and victory. In 1974 he lost the race for party leadership to Yitzhak Rabin by 44 votes. He was defeated again by Rabin in 1976. But he became party head as well as acting prime minister in 1977 once it was revealed that Rabin's wife had bank accounts abroad, which was illegal at the time. Once on top, he led Labor to its first governmental defeat since the creation of the state in 1948, when he lost the prime ministerial race to the Likud candidate, Menachem Begin, who himself was not a charmer at the polls, having lost eight prime ministerial bids. There were some signs that his luck was turning in 1980 when he bested Rabin for party leadership, only to lose the 1981 prime ministerial race to Begin by one mandate. He seemed to do better in 1984 when he actually won the race for prime minister, but by such a narrow margin that he couldn't form a coalition. Instead he was forced to share the office with Likud politician Yitzhak Shamir on a rotation basis. His failure to secure the office for the Labor party was looked on particularly harshly by political pundits. The Jerusalem Post at the time, described it this way: "Even a man plucked at random out of the street should have been able to beat a Likud candidate saddled with responsibility for the twin catastrophes of the war in Lebanon and the raging inflation." Undeterred by the losses, Peres ran again for party leadership in 1992 and lost to Rabin. But he was made both party leader and prime minister following Rabin's assassination in 1995. However in the election that followed in 1996, when he should have slid easily into office, he lost to his Likud opponent Binyamin Netanyahu. He followed that loss with another as party leader in 1997 to Ehud Barak. Peres then turned his eye to another high office, the presidency. It was an honor that everyone expected he would be granted. But in a surprise move at the time, he lost by three votes to Likud candidate Moshe Katsav in 2000. He was returned to the post of foreign minister and deputy prime minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's first government, until the party left the coalition in 2002. For a brief period he remained as a mere MK until circumstances pushed him back into the limelight. He became acting party head in 2003 following Amram Mitzna's resignation. Sharon returned him to the post of vice prime minister when he made a new coalition with Labor in 2004, in advance of Israel's pullout from Gaza, a move that Peres and his party supported. Hoping to shore up the Labor Party, Peres in 2004 invited Peretz, who had left to form his own party, Am Ehad, to return. It was a move that proved to be his undoing. In what was expected to be his final shot at actually being voted into the Prime Minister's Office, Peres lost to Peretz. In a political moment that has become famous, in 1997 Peres asked a Labor Party convention if he was a loser. They responded, "Yes." Peres's first cousin, the famous US actress Lauren Bacall, once sang a song,"100 ways to lose a man." While Peres has shown that he knows 100 ways to lose an election, it is hardly a sign of defeat. It is somehow fitting that he lost this last election. If he had actually won, he would have lost his place as the man who always manages to come out on top even in defeat, and as a result has - despite the electoral setbacks - spent a life time serving his country anyway.