From hated politician to beloved president

Peres is the most popular figure in Israel today, with 81% of the public expressing satisfaction with his performance.

President Shimon Peres at AIPAC Conference 390 (photo credit: Screencap)
President Shimon Peres at AIPAC Conference 390
(photo credit: Screencap)
A public opinion poll held by Ha’aretz last week revealed that President Shimon Peres is the most popular figure in Israel today, with 81 percent of the public expressing satisfaction with his performance.
To those who have followed Peres’ public and political career, his newfound popularity at the age of 88 is nothing short of a miracle. As a Labor Party politician, who between 1974 and 1995 alternated as party leader with the late Yitzhak Rabin, Peres was one of the most detested figures in Israeli politics.
Even though numerous biographies have been written about the man, none of them explain the reason for this antipathy, which neither his career nor his deeds ever justified.
Some say that a sentence in Yitzhak Rabin’s 1979 autobiography, in which he called Peres an “indefatigable saboteur,” was responsible. Others point out that it has been Peres’ positions regarding the peace process, which are too dovish in the eyes of the hawks, too hawkish in the eyes of the doves, and pipe dreams in the eyes of realists.
It has been explained that Peres’ East European origins and accent denied him the public appeal of the Israeli-born Labor leaders of his generation – Moshe Dayan, Yigal Alon and Rabin. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that even though he served for years in the Ministry of Defense as director-general, deputy minister and then as minister, was largely responsible for Israel’s alliance with France in the 1950s, and the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, he had never actually served in uniform.
But all this is also true of Likud leader Menachem Begin, who was worshipped by the very same people who despised Peres.
Even though Peres served twice as prime minister – from 1984 to 1986 within the National Unity Government under the rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir, and once from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 until the 1996 general elections, in which he lost to Binyamin Netanyahu by a minute margin – he continued to carry the image of a loser, which he himself refused to acknowledge. But this fact, too, does not explain the antipathy. Again, Menachem Begin lost in eight consecutive general elections – from 1949 to 1974 – without any damage to his image or popularity.
It was, in fact, only following his failure to form a new government, after bringing down Shamir Government (of which Labor had been a member) by means of a vote on a motion of no-confidence in March 1990, that the Labor Party itself started viewing Peres as a burden, and reelected Rabin as its leader toward the 1992 elections. Rabin won those elections by a landslide.
Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Peres once against hoped to revert to his leadership position, until the Labor Party leadership contest of 2005, which he lost to Amir Peretz.
My personal feeling is that Peres inadvertently castrated (in the political sense) two generations of potential Labor leaders – those born in the 1930s and 1940s – by refusing to exit the political arena in time to enable a natural and durable changing of the guard. When in the year 2005 he finally did leave, it was by slamming the door on the Labor Party of which he had been a member for over 50 years, and joining Kadima, mostly out of spite.
The move did, however, help him realize his dream of becoming president in 2007, after Moshe Katzav, who had inflicted a bitter defeat on him in the 2000 presidential elections, was forced to step down under shameful circumstances.
Becoming president was probably the best thing that ever happened to Peres. But what has turned him into such a loved president? This is almost as impossible to figure out as the enormity of the hatred for him when he was an active politician. No one even seemed to mind that his acceptance of the presidency caused his final estrangement from his wife Sonia, whom he once called “the only woman I ever loved,” who remained in Tel- Aviv, where she died alone in January 2011.
It is said that after the Katzav fiasco Israel was ready for a elderly, reliable president unlikely to become involved in scandals of any sort. Though Peres continues to meddle in political affairs, and to express views that neither tally with those of the current Israeli government nor are accepted by the majority of Israelis, he is perceived as a voice that “brings Israel honor and respect” the world round. To the leaders of the US and Europe he represents a sane and level-headed Israel. In Israel what he says is politely ignored.
Be all this as it may, the phenomenon of the hate and love for Shimon Peres still awaits serious analysis.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.