“Before, there were two horses pulling the cart,” a sad and pensive Shimon Peres remarked to friends over the weekend. “Now, there is one horse and an empty harness.”
The image reflected the distance the two once-bitter rivals, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, had traversed the past three years.
Bitter at losing the Labor Party leadership to Rabin in 1992, entered the new government that year full of resentment and suspicion.
But as the peace process unfolded, he set aside his still-intense dislike of Rabin and dedicated himself to one goal: peace.
Rabin, whose antipathy toward Peres was at least as profound as that of the foreign minister toward him, responded positively to Peres’ new selflessness in the pursuit of a regional peace.
Indeed, working together in intimate proximity, the unexpected happened to the two old war horses: They grew to respect each other, to feel comfortable with each other – and even to begin to like each other.
Their close alliance formed the bedrock of Israel’s peace policies. But it posed a looming problem for their party.
Elections were approaching, and the Rabin-Peres ticket meant that the Labor Party was offering the electorate two septuagenarians: Rabin would have been 74 and Peres 73 by November 1996, when the national elections are scheduled to be held.
The problem was exacerbated by the contrast between Labor’s slate and that of the Likud, led by the young, telegenic and charismatic Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, 47.
The Likud, long led by the elderly though spry Yitzhak Shamir, had managed to jump a generation and to present the public with a fresh and youthful image.
Three longtime leadership contenders had all been shunted aside to make way for the “Bibi-boomers”:
Moshe Arens, who served as Shamir’s defense minister but retired from politics after the Likud’s defeat in 1992; Ariel Sharon, the hardline and controversial defense minister of the Lebanon War who lost the party’s mainstream support as he edged steadily rightward; and David Levy, Shamir’s foreign minister who broke from Likud earlier this year to found his own party.
Netanyahu, not universally respected among his party colleagues, has carefully surrounded himself with an impressive and attractive phalanx of bright young stars:
Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, son of the late, revered Menachem Begin; Dan Meridor, formerly the minister of justice and closest aide to both Menachem Begin ad Shamir; Limor Livnat, a cogent and outspoken young female Knesset member; and Tsachi Hanegbi, firebrand former student leader and rising Knesset star.
Waiting in the wings and available for national office are the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Ehud Olmert and Ronnie Milo.
Now, with Rabin’s tragic death, Peres and Labor have the opportunity to match the Likud challenge with a winning mix of their own youthful stars.
The pattern that is clearly before Peres’ eyes is that of his own revered mentor, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
During his 15 years at the helm of the state, from 1948-1963, Ben-Gurion surrounded himself with bright and loyal younger men, purposefully grooming them for future national leadership roles.
Prominent among these young men was Peres himself, who was appointed director general of the Defense Ministry at the age of 29.
As Peres pursues the Ben-Gurion model, the young men who may fill roles in his evolving government are not all of his choosing. But coming into the premiership in a dramatic and unexpected way, Peres could hardly have prepared his own preferred team.
The rising stars include: * Ehud Barak, 53, an intellectually brilliant and much-decorated military man who retired as army chief of staff at the beginning of this year and recently entered Rabin’s Cabinet as interior minister.
Many regarded Barak as Rabin’s chosen heir. Peres is likely to appoint him defense minister of foreign minister – depending on which, if either, of these posts Peres decides to keep for himself. * Hami Ramon, 47, a popular young politician who served under Rabin as minister of health. He broke from Labor when it refused to back his health reform proposals. He then set up his own party to fight and win control of the Histadrut trade union federation, a longtime Labor power base.
After the assassination of Rabin, Ramon set aside all preconditions for his re- entry into Labor. On Tuesday, he made the decision official, announcing that he and two other breakaway colleagues, Amir Peretz and Samuel Avital, were returning to the Labor fold.
Peres, for his part, is expected to give Ramon the Interior Ministry portfolio in his new government.
But the young minister who, whatever his portfolio, will be the closest to Peres will be Yossi Beilin, now minister of economic planning.
Beilin, 47, a former journalist, threw in his lot with Peres in his mentor’s darkest days – straight after Labor’s searing defeat at the hands of Menachem Begin in 1977.
Since then, the two have been inseparable and have developed a father-son relationship that has withstood all the vicissitudes of public life.
It was Beilin who, through two academic friends, set the secret peace talks with the Palestinians in motion in Oslo – discussions that paved the way for the September 1993 signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn.
As Peres goes about the task of establishing a new government, he has received as gracious a gesture of support as he could have wished from the slain prime minister’s widow, Leah Rabin.
“You started off as two,” she told Peres during Sunday’s massive rally in Tel Aviv to honor her slain husband. “Now you are left alone.”
She then wished him well in his effort to lead the country toward the peace that was her husband’s legacy.