This past Monday, Shimon Peres was seen hurrying to his office on the second floor of the Knesset. What energy and youthful elation flowed from the loins of the 84-year-old man. His 20-something bodyguard was having a hard time keeping up with him. All his childhood friends, all his acquaintances from over the years, all the other members of the generation of founding fathers are now dead or floating somewhere between life and death - or they retired a long time ago already. Only Shimon is still around. Maintaining a constant state of activity aimed at winning the next job, the vacant seat of power. All of this, as usual, not for his own sake and without giving it too much thought.
All the losses and the humiliation have not toughened him, nor have they made him rough around the edges. He still can't hear a "no" from the Knesset members he speaks with. When he meets with someone of whose support he is not sure, he will not ask for it. He will speak about the importance of the institution of the presidency and about his plans, and he will take leave of the person with a handshake. After that, his emissaries will swoop down on the target to persuade him; they will come in swarms, plead with him, pressure him and entice him. If that does not help, the person will be invited to a meeting with the prime minister. The ultimate honor. If that, too, does not help, Peres' sophisticated war machine will seek out routes leading to the person's heart, eyes and ears: donors and men of wealth, political patrons, diplomats, local activists, intellectuals (including Amos Oz, of course).
Just as the movie "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" is always screened on the morning of Independence Day, so we are once again witness to the ongoing Peres-Shas saga, which includes the tormented love Rabbi Ovadia feels for Shimon.
Peres is telling his close associates that he is convinced that 70 MKs will vote for him. Outwardly, as if they don't want to jinx it, the aides broadcast a message of skepticism, worry and fear. The race for the presidency has turned into a war movie. A campaign for which all participants commit suicide.
Ehud Olmert is putting his political future at risk for Peres. If Peres is elected president, Olmert will have won twice over: He will be able to celebrate a parliamentary and a public victory, and he will be able to get rid of the main threat to his position on the eve of the "deadline," the apparent target date for the end of his term of office - the presentation of the final Winograd Committee report.
Olmert takes any opportunity he is presented with, any chance his aides identify for him. He approached a certain person on the left in the name of "the peace camp." How will the "peace camp" accept the election of Reuven Rivlin, a man of the right, rather than Peres, the prophet from Oslo, Olmert asked. Are you speaking to me about the peace camp, the MK replied to him angrily. Where have you been all this time? Olmert did not give up. Do you really want a person like Rivlin to sit in the President's Residence? he asked.
Olmert speaks to the MKs about Peres, but Olmert's associates speak to them about Olmert. "I know," one of his advisers says, "that you hate Ehud, that you are dying for him to go down the drain, but think about yourselves. How will you look, the ruling faction with 29 MKs, if you are defeated by the Likud with only 12 MKs? What kind of shape will you be in? What will it do for your longevity here?"
When it comes to voting, the interests of MKs are so complex and tortuous that it is difficult to predict the outcome, although this time the buzz in the corridors certainly tends to favor Peres. Mainly because of Shas. Take, for example, a guy like Meir Sheetrit. He is considered a Rivlin supporter. He was also among those who opposed the "Peres Law," which was aimed at turning the secret ballot into an open one. But Sheetrit has something to gain from Peres' election, which would leave a vacant cabinet post and the title of "vice premier." Or consider MK Amira Dotan from Kadima. She is one of the faction's members who refused to sign the document nominating Peres as a candidate. In addition, she is considered to be a Rivlin supporter. But she is also very close to Tzipi Livni, and Livni has a clear and personal interest in pushing Peres all the way to the President's Residence, to increase her chances of succeeding Olmert. Olmert met with Dotan this week. She gave him a tongue-lashing about the way in which Peres was elected as the faction's candidate, a decision which landed on her without warning and without involving consultation with other MKs. She refused to say how she would vote on Wednesday. According to her, Olmert did not try to convince her.
"I consider myself a leader, a commander," says Brigadier General (res.) Dotan. "No one can impose a candidate on me."
Peres, too, is meeting with MKs, by the dozens, including Rabbi Michael Melchior.
"We have always been very close, Michael," Peres said to Melchior, "and you know I always opposed civil marriages."
"I'm aware of that," the liberal and pleasant rabbi said, "but I have always been in favor of civil marriages."
From favorite to underdog
"I have turned from the favorite candidate into the underdog," Reuven Rivlin says sadly. He is so human and not manipulative; one can read everything on his face. Until a week ago, he was the leading candidate because Peres was not really in the fight. From the moment Peres leaped into the arena, the support for Rivlin, who is popular and well-liked by all sectors of the House, began to crack. Even Rivlin, it seems, was surprised about how fragile it had been. "I know that my opening positions are problematic," Rivlin admits. "I am a member of a faction with 12 MKs, not 40. I cannot offer anything, I cannot promise anything, except for one thing: As president, my door will always be open. To both MKs and citizens. I will remain the same Ruby; my telephone numbers will be publicized. I will continue to sleep in my own home and I will spend most of my time inside the country, so the citizens can consider me an address to turn to."
He was surprised by the belligerent attitude displayed by Olmert and his assistants on behalf of Peres. He met with Olmert about eight months ago. They had a good conversation. Olmert did not promise to support him - there is a limit to everything - but he did promise that he would not fight against him. But here we have it - a world war! "I hear from friends of mine, who are in the Kadima faction, that the prime minister and his men, as well as some of the ministers, are inciting members to vote against me. He [Olmert] is really fighting a battle to the end against me."
Rivlin has been dreaming about the presidency for three years: for two years as speaker of the Knesset and for a year as an MK from the opposition. A week before Ariel Sharon fell into a coma, he went to see him in the Prime Minister's Bureau for appeasement talks. "Why don't you join Kadima?" Sharon asked him. "You can be Knesset speaker and then you can replace our Moshe [Katsav]. After all, that's what you want so much."
"I don't know whether he was speaking cynically or out of love," Rivlin says. "But he was right on the mark. I really wanted, and want, to be president. I know that now a large majority of the public wants Peres, but I believe that when I complete my term of office in the Presidential Residence, a big majority will say that I was an excellent president."
He has no illusions; he knows his situation is anything but easy. In an interview with radio journalist Razi Barkai on Tuesday morning, he spoke openly of MKs who assured him of their support in the past but now look at the ground when they pass him in the corridor. He was referring to Kadima MKs, who are being steamrolled by the pressures exerted by the Prime Minister's Bureau, and to the Arab MKs, who are receiving telephone calls from different sources.
"Until now, I enjoyed cross-factional support, not because of my right-wing positions, but despite those positions. MKs who do not share my point of view support me because they know that as soon as I am elected, I will completely cut myself off from politics. They support me because they remember how fair and straight I was when I was Knesset speaker, and they support me because they know that as president I will not do a thing that would contradict the decisions of the Knesset and the government. I will not interfere in governmental decisions. I will take action only with regard to noncontroversial issues."
Rivlin promises to be a president for internal needs, as opposed to Peres, who will be a president for external needs. He has mixed feelings about the possibility of losing to Peres. On the one hand, Peres is a "loser." On the other hand, he is after all Shimon Peres and at some time or other the scale has to tip in his favor. "Peres' candidacy certainly adds prestige to the race and to those who are participating in it," Rivlin says. "Just as it would add prestige to any position Peres was worthy of: prime minister, foreign minister and even UN secretary general. I would not have dreamed of competing against Peres for any one of those positions. He chose to compete against me for the presidency of the state."
A reversal of the 'Altalena'
The expression "the Altalena phenomenon" was born after the political turnabout of 1977 when the Likud came to power. Many people then remembered that they had been on the deck of the Etzel's weapons ship that had been sunk by the Israel Defense Forces. It transpires that there is also a reversed Altalena. In a survey conducted by Haaretz-Dialog, which examined the voting intentions of Labor Party members in the second round of the primaries for the party's leadership, the following finding came to light: Half of those who had voted for Amir Peretz in the first round have forgotten that they voted for him. According to the survey, Peretz received only 11 percent of the Labor votes on May 28 - exactly half of the actual number of votes cast for him.
It is possible to assume that the embarrassed 11 percent will not take the trouble to go to the polls next week. But 80 percent of those who will go promise that they will vote for Ami Ayalon. This finding explains why it is difficult for Ayalon to achieve a clear-cut victory over Ehud Barak. The current situation amounts more or less to a draw, with a slight upper hand to Ayalon. Peretz is working like crazy to secure votes for Ayalon. He has invested all his political shares in the admiral. Other people in Peretz's surroundings are investing less in the issue. They are keeping their options open. If Ayalon wins, it will only be because of Peretz. If Barak wins, he will owe his success to two people: Ophir Pines-Paz, who threw his weight behind him two days ago, and Histadrut secretary general Ofer Eini. People in the Histadrut say that Eini is working for Barak - that means, against Peretz - "with a blade between his teeth." To his chagrin, Peretz has discovered that the systems he put into operation as Histadrut chairman in the race against Peres in 2005, are now haunting him.
I don't understand Ophir, Ayalon said two days ago during a closed discussion. he heard much more explicit things from me than from Barak about our remaining in the coalition. I explained to him how I would navigate the move, both within the party and outside of it. I told him that, contrary to Barak, I have many more tools at my disposal to deal with the complexity of sitting in the opposition: I am an MK and I am capable of being the leader of the opposition. Barak is not an MK. From his point of view, sitting in the opposition is not an option. Despite that, and despite the fact that in the talks between Ophir and me, very serious things were said about the problematic phenomena that characterize the party - Ophir chose to go with Barak.
"This is a battle of the trenches," says Eldad Yaniv, Barak's adviser. "It is a cruel battle," says Avishay Braverman, Ayalon's partner in the race. "But the great battles in the party, in the center, will start the day after the primaries."
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