President Peres is turning against Bibi

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 11, 2010

Two or three times a day, Shimon Peres stands in the President's mansion, receiving groups of blushing beauty queens, farmers and international parliamentarians. Each group gets its share of smiles, joint photographs and the standard joke, always some reference to the great man's age.

In the absence of a royal family, only the 86-year-old mega-statesman can lend grandeur to the informality of Israeli official events.

But no one ever expected him to be just a figurehead. The man eternally branded by Yitzhak Rabin as "a tireless schemer" could not stop playing politics even if he tried.

In November 2008, visiting London, he was already paving the way for the new government four months before the election, when he told everyone he met that "Bibi is not so bad, he will work for peace".

But in recent weeks, there have been hints of change. Unattributed quotes have been coming out of the presidential circle, criticising Mr Netanyahu's coalition for being "anti-peace". The anonymous briefers are careful to say that Mr Peres still believes the PM is interested in peace but he has to change his coalition - that is, invite the hated Kadima to join - if he is to advance towards a settlement.

Mr Peres poses a dilemma for prime ministers. On the one hand, he is an invaluable conduit for sensitive diplomatic messages. On the other, he is an alternative source of authority to an elected PM.

To be fair, for two-and-a-half years, Mr Peres has been well-behaved. He has served alongside two prime ministers and - until now - there has been no sign of discord.

Will the President now turn against Mr Netanyahu openly? Probably not - he will not do anything to jeopardise his elevated position. Instead, Mr Peres has struck an unlikely alliance with IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi. They meet frequently and share the most sensitive information; General Ashkenazi also takes Mr Peres on tours of army bases.

The IDF chief has recently been raising hackles. He is now one of the most widely respected figures in the country, and also something of a diplomat, with warm ties in Washington - just like Mr Peres.

The press are running stories about how the President and Chief of Staff share the same positions on Iran, the Palestinians and Syria. Mr Peres's recruitment of General Ashkenazi is a clear signal to the politicians: he is a force to be reckoned with and his support is by no means to be taken for granted.

Last updated: 3:35pm, June 3 2010


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