Let’s put it this way: Even if he were running for head of the tenants committee of an isolated lighthouse in which he was the only tenant, Shimon Peres would lose by 0.6%. And after a long sleepless night of uncertainty, at the end of which he would show up with his face crestfallen — as he has done every decade since the middle of the last century — he’d blame the failure on the Gulf Stream, the melting of the polar icecaps and, of course, the crumpled ballot that turned up somewhere.
His defeat last week transformed his mythological image of “Peres the loser” from a portrait cast in bronze into a sculpture fashioned from monumental marble, a brother to Sisyphus and Prometheus. Peres, who was voted out last week as Labor Party chairman, is a person who bears a bizarre ancient curse: a man who has devoted his whole long life and all his desires, without rest or surcease, to courting the public’s love, but who never reaches the goal of an electoral mandate of trust.
True, it would not have been civilization as we knew it, or the laws of nature known to humanity, if Peres rather than Amir Peretz had won the Labor Party leadership elections (or any other elections). “The results of the elections truly raise an extraordinary eyebrow,” he said after his defeat, in his tangled way. But, in fact, it only would have been “extraordinary” had Peres won.
It was not until Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak in 2001 that Likud could claim to have beaten anybody but Peres. If losing several parliamentary races with the premiership at stake was not bad enough for the Labor stalwart, the Knesset surprised most observers in 2000 by tapping the relatively obscure Moshe Katzav for the presidency over Peres the Nobel laureate. And now, to top things off, he has been upset by Peretz, who until his victory had been written off in many circles as a union activist without the stature to lead a country or major party.
Even at the age of 82, burdened (though not sated) with honors, nothing in Peres has been becalmed, no wisdom of the aged has dawned in him; once again we saw the “most acclaimed person in the entire world” jump like the least of the functionaries with grumbles and complaints about election rigging, with the permanent plaint that he lost again only because he received — the scandal of it! — fewer votes than his rival.
Still, there have been some who view the defeated Labor leader’s very survival in political life as a kind of achievement in itself. In Israeli society, where people’s eyes do not look ahead in hope, but life exists in constant fear of the unknown, that perception carries a grain of truth. Israel is a community or a family more than it is a nation, and it needs father or grandfather figures, even if they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Peres could not have survived for so long in public life if the public had not clung to his sheer accumulated presence and even loved to hate him. Even without an official mandate, the public, at least in the polls and in its heart’s desire, seemed to want Peres to always be there, if only because he was always there.
From a certain point, a politician’s very survival becomes a productive asset, which accumulates seniority and interest, and when it crosses the line of minimal service or a certain age, it itself becomes the message. And the more the person in question is desperate and unrestrained, the more his survival becomes a national goal in its own right, without any connection to the amount of damage he caused in the past or his ability to act beneficially in the future. From this point of view, Sharon has been playing a part identical to that of Peres in the past few years. Though he may seem to be the opposite of Peres, the “winner” to his “loser,” the two are actually twin brothers.
For the past five years, Israelis have been riveted as though their own lives depended on the survival struggles of these two ancient but vigorous and ambitious men, who are grasping at power as though suspended above an abyss. Some critics, on the left and the right, argue that there is nothing graceful or noble about their struggle. But Israelis gasp in fear whenever a clod of earth falls from under their feet, or a stone shifts beneath their fingers.
It looks as though the movie with the two old men is coming to a close, the final credits are rolling. But wait, wait, who knows? Israelis tell themselves that Peres and Sharon will not live forever, that in the end they will lose their grip, that the time has come for change, for new tidings.
But then the nation’s heart (especially after the failed experiences with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) skips a beat at the victory of Amir Peretz. Yes, Israelis want a change, they want new blood. But what, the Sharon-Peres show is over already?