Peres the campaigner: Despair not an option

November 24, 2016 23:12

In late April 1996, with the entourage of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, I was heading to London on the Israeli version of Air Force One. Still depressed and licking my wounds after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and being considered as one of the "Rabin Boys", I wasn't so popular in the eyes of the ever suspicious Peres people on the plane. However, little did they know that I had always considered him to be one of the greatest Israelis ever, and once he became Prime Minister - albeit in such tragic circumstances - I thought he should use this advantage to win the next election and lead Israel to a great future.

Except that elections were a problem for Peres: he never won one. In a popular joke, he complained: "I'm the most popular man in Israel before Election Day, and the most popular after Election Day. For one day only you punish me like this?"

Indeed, as revered as he was in his later years, there was always a bitter touch to the relations between Peres and the Israelis. The man who did more than anyone else - except, perhaps, his mentor, David Ben-Gurion - to safeguard the security of the Israelis was never rewarded by them in the ballot box. Almost seventy (!) years ago, in his mid twenties, he was already busy arming the young IDF. In 1956, when Israel was facing the threat of Egyptian rearmament by the Soviets, he charmed his close friends in the French Air Force and, bypassing the French bureaucracy, he managed to snatch two squadrons of advanced Jet fighters which were rushed to Israel just before the Sinai War.

Not to mention his greatest accomplishment, which no one can formally discuss - except that everyone knows he was the father of Israel's nuclear capabilities, which he had built against fierce opposition.

"Sadat came to Jerusalem through Dimona," meaning that he realised he would never succeed in destroying Israel. These were the words of Peres himself, the man who sometimes had to remind the ungrateful Israelis of what he had done for them.

So why didn't the Israelis trust Peres? Because, mistakenly, he was perceived by them as a "peacenik" and "Arab lover", when in fact he believed that genuine peace would bring the best security for Israel, and he pursued peace out of his love for the Jews and the Israelis, not necessarily the love of Arabs.

That is why in 1992 he had to settle for being number two to Rabin, Mr Security, whom the Israelis did trust.

Few cared to remember that in the Entebbe Raid it was then-Defence Minister Peres who had fervently pushed for the daring operation while Rabin, the hesitant Prime Minister, wavered.

But now the victor of the Six Day War was gone, and Peres was Prime Minister at last, although not through elections but by succeeding the slain Rabin. Would he win the next elections, scheduled for a month after the London trip?

He was facing a shrewd opponent, the young Benjamin Netanyahu, who had already made a lot of political mileage by attacking the Peres baby, the Oslo Process. Netanyahu, who two decades later would travel to Washington on the eve of Election Day, in 1996 called the London trip of Peres "pathetic", condemning it as a last minute act of despair aimed at impressing the reluctant voters.

I had bad feelings about the coming elections. Peres was the prophet of hope and of peace but the reality in early 1996 was of terror, with buses exploding in the midst of our cities. Netanyahu, on the other hand, was a master of playing on people's fear, a quality he has now brought to perfection. I felt that Peres should have called for early elections to intercept the rising effectiveness of Netanyahu's campaign of fear.

Then the opportunity presented itself. Rumours among the press corps on the flight to London ran high that Peres was indeed contemplating the idea of early elections. Shlomo Raz, the Israel Radio correspondent asked him directly, to which Peres responded enigmatically: "You said so". The perplexed Raz asked me later: "What did he mean by that?", to which - God forgive me - I answered: "He is calling for early elections". I even arranged for the ecstatic Raz to transmit his scoop to his radio station through the plane's communications system, usually reserved for operational use only.

In vain. On the way back, the Peres people worked him for hours, convincing him that calling for early elections would let people think that he was trying to benefit from the public shock after Rabin's assassination. Knowing their patron, they played on his most sensitive nerve: "You can win the elections yourself, without the help of the shadow of the fallen hero, Rabin".

The rest is history. By midnight on Election Day, May 29, 1996, people went to sleep believing Peres had won an election at last. The following morning, they woke up realising that the exit polls had been wrong and that Netanyahu had won by a margin of 30,000 votes.

That was the second London missed opportunity of Peres, the former occurring in 1987, when in a secret meeting at the house of Lord Mishcon, he convinced King Hussein of Jordan to take over the West Bank.

Had then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not torpedoed it, perhaps the Intifadas could have been avoided and today we would have lived in peace with a Palestinian Jordan.

Did these setbacks discourage Peres? Nothing of the sort.

Whenever he suffered a blow, he rose up like a lion to take on a new challenge. And this, in a nutshell, is his legacy: For Israel, despair is not an option.

Adieu, Shimon. A Rabin Boy salutes you.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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