Peres Bang' Is Big Boost for PM

Generations of frustrated politicians, members of the Labor Party's "middle generation," hoped and prayed for years to hear this sentence come out of Shimon Peres' mouth: "My party activities have reached an end."

With great difficulty and quite late in the game, Peres managed to utter these words last night, exactly three weeks after the latest, and most stinging, defeat he has suffered in his party. His former party, that is. The divorce between Peres and Labor did not remotely resemble Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure from the Likud. Sharon looked like a former prisoner freed from his chains. Peres looked like a mother forced to separate from her biological child.

At any rate, this is history. The "big bang" is taking place in front of our eyes day by day, almost hour by hour. Who can forget this November, when Sharon left the Likud and Peres left Labor.

Peres, of course, is not going home. He was promised a portfolio in the Sharon government, and there's no reason to think Sharon won't keep his word. At 82 and a half, Peres is beginning a new career as a freelance politician, an independent operator, but always obligated to his younger friend, Arik, as he referred to Sharon last night. From Peres' perspective, as long as there's a portfolio on the horizon, there's a reason to wake up in the morning.

Examining the findings of the most recent Haaretz-Dialog poll, supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs, will help explain why it was so important for Sharon to recruit Peres. The survey, which was conducted Tuesday and last night, asked how Peres' departure from Labor and his decision to join Kadima would influence respondents' chances for voting for Sharon's party. The findings are unequivocal: As of now, Peres is of prime value to Sharon. Some 30 percent of the respondents said Peres' departure from Labor would increase their chances of voting for Kadima. In contrast, only 15 percent said the addition of Peres to Kadima would decrease their chances for supporting the party.

The results are even more surprising among those who voted for the Likud in the 2003 elections, 35 percent of whom said that the Peres factor would increase their chances of voting for Kadima. A similar percentage of Labor voters said the same thing.

During a time when the political system is in the midst of a raging storm, Peres' departure is a tough blow for Amir Peretz and a major achievement for Sharon. Of course, no one can predict what will happen in the future; Peres is a problematic campaigner who has never managed to maintain campaign discipline. He could cause damage, and the primary task of Sharon and his advisers will be to keep an eye on Shimon - to keep him in the background as much as possible and moderate his comments so Likud voters won't get scared and run back home. But Peres also brings with him Labor voters, retirees, and, according to the poll, people between the ages of 18 and 24 who say they will follow him to Kadima.

Peres said last night that Sharon, not Peretz, is the most suitable person to lead a coalition of peace at this time. Peres associates said Peretz made a big mistake - not because he ran against Peres, but because of the way he treated him since the primaries, including refusing to reserve the No. 2 slot for him. If Peres had considered staying in Labor after his loss, Peretz's belligerent behavior was the deciding factor.