JERUSALEM (Aug. 1)
Despite a stinging personal defeat, Shimon Peres has focused his thoughts on what lies ahead for Israel and the Middle East. The peace process, he said Tuesday — the day after the Knesset chose Likud lawmaker Moshe Katsav instead of him to serve as the nation’s eighth president — has three months left to succeed.
If it does, Peres said, Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to call an election because the present Knesset is hostile to his peace policy and will not enable him to submit an agreement to a national referendum.
The former prime minister, and now member of Barak’s Cabinet, also said he is not blaming anyone for his unexpected defeat at the hands of Katsav, a relative unknown in the international arena, where Peres has long played the role of elder statesman.
Peres did not link the fate handed him during the secret Knesset ballot to the standing of Barak and his government among Israel’s legislators.
Nor did he deduce that his own defeat means that Barak would not triumph in a national referendum on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Peres’ old friend and political foe, Ariel Sharon, however, did link the defeat to the peace process.
Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud Party, claimed Tuesday that the majority that put Katsav into the president’s residence is, in effect, the same majority in the Knesset that opposes Barak’s peace moves.
This majority includes the rightist bloc and the religious bloc. It is the coalition that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin first put together in 1977, when he brought his Likud Party to power for the first time.
His successor, Yitzhak Shamir, inherited the coalition and was able to preserve it for much of the following decade.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin overturned the coalition, briefly but crucially, after the election of 1992, when he wooed the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into his Labor-Meretz government and went on to sign the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
The rightist-religious coalition came together again four years later, to support Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership.
Although Barak succeeded once again in creating Rabin’s coalition when he won power last year, he has not succeeded in holding it together.
If Sharon’s view is correct, Peres was the victim of this coalition’s breakup, which came on the eve of the Camp David talks when Shas and two other parties bolted from Barak’s government.
Peres’s personal story — four decades of historic triumphs at home and abroad interspersed with frustrating electoral defeats — is the stuff of great literature.
But the fortunes of Barak’s peace initiative, which still hangs in the balance despite the collapse of the Camp David summit, is the stuff of Israel’s future.
Sharon says the Israeli people will follow their legislators and shore up the “national camp.” He also says the electorate will spurn the concessions Barak made at Camp David, particularly his readiness to cede the strategic Jordan Valley and to transfer parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty.
The ever-confident Barak — and with him the defeated but not silenced Peres — believe there is still room to hope that the Palestinians will accept U.S. bridging proposals on Jerusalem, and that if they do the people of Israel will do so as well.
Barak has the opinion polls to back him up. Over the weekend, a Gallup poll indicated that 66 percent of Israelis favor further negotiations with the Palestinians.
This was significant because it is now fairly clear what was on the negotiating table.
All parties at Camp David have confirmed that Jerusalem was the chief obstacle to a final agreement and that the city was the subject of numerous compromise proposals.
It would then seem that the Israeli public has in large part swallowed what for years has been considered politically unthinkable: Their prime minister is negotiating changes in the status of Jerusalem.
On the political right, people point to the huge disparity between the weekend opinion polls regarding the presidency and what in fact transpired in the Knesset on Monday. The polls showed Peres favored by three times as many Israelis as Katsav. Yet Katsav won.
Perhaps, they say, the polls are also way off when it comes to the negotiations with the Palestinians.
Pollsters and left-of-center pundits, though, maintain that the “inaccuracy” of the polls in terms of who would win the presidential contest proves that the Knesset is way to the right of the public.
Hence its insistence on voting for Katsav even though Peres was the more popular candidate. And hence its determination, if it can, to bring Barak down before he can take a peace accord with Arafat to the people.
On Monday afternoon, in the aftermath of the dramatic presidential vote, Sharon’s vaunted “national camp majority” failed to gel in a no-confidence motion against Barak. Only 50 members supported the motion, which needed 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members to bring the premier and his government down.
Because Knesset rules preclude motions of no confidence during the summer recess, which begins in the coming days, Barak has thus ensured his survival for the next three months.
But even the prime minister’s most diehard loyalists are not fooling themselves that his present, precarious situation can be maintained indefinitely.
With the recent defections of the three parties, Barak’s coalition now has only 42 Knesset seats, leaving him without a majority to pass his government’s program. On measure after measure, the opposition seems to be able to pull together ad hoc majorities to get its way.
Sharon vowed Tuesday that the recess would give the beleaguered Barak no peace.
“Our children and grandchildren can go on vacation,” the Likud leader said. “But there’ll be no holiday for us. We’ll be here, day in and day out, attacking the prime minister.”
Political observers say the crunch will come when the Knesset returns from its summer break, just after the High Holidays.
If Barak has gotten an accord with the Palestinians by then, there will be elections.
If he has not, they say, there will still be elections.
The only question is when they will be held. Some politicians suggest the spring of 2001. Others say Barak will be unable to govern until then, that he will be unable to push through the state budget at year’s end.
Either way, the present government’s days seem numbered.
Pundits may long debate whether Peres’ defeat was related to this situation, but all are agreed that the same Knesset that denied him the presidency is fast approaching the end of its term.