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News Analysis: Why on Earth Would Peres Want to Run for President?

June 6, 2000
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Shimon Peres — the former prime minister and Nobel laureate who has been hailed the world over as a peacemaker and statesman – – stood on one side of the beaming great-grandfather.

Moshe Katsav — past tourism minister, middle-ranking Likud Party leader, an unknown outside Israel and not especially well known inside it — took the other flank.

All three men smiled for the cameras.

This picture was taken Sunday at the circumcision of the great-grandson of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.

It played prominently in the television news that night and was featured in the national press the next day, giving proof to the political pundits’ prediction: Yosef holds the key to the state presidency.

Peres said he “always” takes part in Yosef family celebrations.

Katsav, eagerly kissing the rabbi’s hand, maintained that he, too, has a warm personal relationship with the celebrants.

Both candidates were exaggerating, naturally enough, although Peres has indeed, over the years, kept up a fairly close relationship with the Shas sage. He has visited him on festivals and briefed him on matters of state.

Indeed, that relationship goes a long way to account for what otherwise would be something of a mystery. In the presidential race, Katsav is both Sephardi and traditional, while Peres is Ashkenazi and secular. Yet Shas, the Sephardi- traditionalist party, is undecided and says it will make its mind up — or, more accurately, will be instructed by Yosef as to its decision — only in July, when the voting in the Knesset takes place.

Peres and Katsav announced last week that they are running for the presidency after Ezer Weizman announced that he would resign from office in July, three years before his second five-year term ends.

Some political observers link Shas’ equivocation about whom it will back to an ongoing coalition crisis between Shas and the secular Meretz Party.

Shas, they say, will seek further concessions from Prime Minister Ehud Barak in return for backing Peres.

Some observers also say the premier is unenthusiastic about securing Peres’ victory.

Beyond the political speculation, many people here are asking why the former prime minister is in the running in the first place.

Why does Peres, 77, by far Israel’s best-known statesman, need to fight yet another domestic political campaign, presumably the last in his long career of fighting — and all too often losing — political battles at home?

One answer offered by those who know Peres is that he needs to fight this one in order to win it — and thereby, at least in his mind, cancel out the bitter and ignominious memories of past defeats.

“Me, a loser?” Peres said after Benjamin Netanyahu swept him from office in 1996. Then, as on many occasions before that, he cited myriad reasons and explanations to account for his failure at the ballot box.

Ending his career as the nation’s president would, in this view, make up for some of those past disappointments and leave his name emblazoned on Israel’s history as a winner, not a loser.

But that theory begs a further question that is also being asked this week.

Even if he does win, will Peres have the interest, let alone the physical and mental staying power, to carry out the largely ceremonial role of president for the full five-year term?

Will he have the common touch that made Weizman a public figure loved by the masses?

Peres himself declared last week that he was now no longer a political or party person. His primary commitment henceforth was national unity, he said, not the agenda of his Labor Party.

Peres’ aides insist that his days of undercutting serving prime ministers – – memorably documented in former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1979 autobiography — are long over.

Barak, they maintain, has no reason to fear that a second center of power would evolve in the President’s Residence if Peres is elected.

Still, Peres-watchers find it hard to conceive of this active man restricting himself to making bland speeches and shaking innumerable hands.

But some pundits, looking back over Peres’ checkered performance as a candidate, say such concerns are premature.

“If he ran against himself, he’d lose,” said one pundit.

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