Text size

The day after tomorrow U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond will celebrate, at his hospital apartment and at the White House where he's been invited, his 100th birthday. On a good day, when he looks in the mirror and recognizes the man looking back, Thurmond knows that by completing 48 years in the Senate next month, he'll be leaving behind a record for service and age that won't be broken for decades to come.

In politics, Thurmond is in the same class as Shimon Peres. True, a few weeks ago some ancient coins were found in the Judean desert with the word Shimon inscribed on them, but it would be an exaggeration to say they were tokens in Peres' first campaign. Nonetheless, in 1948, when Thurmond was only governor of South Carolina, running for president, Peres was already a national political player as David Ben-Gurion's aide. Like Ariel Sharon, he began as the youngest kid in the class, and will finish it, if he ever does finish his career, as the oldest.

There's more than one reason for the success of Peres and Sharon, two allies who helped each other against their rivals in their respective parties, in reaching the premiership. But the main reason is persistence. They refused to quit. Another reason, resulting from the first, was voter compassion for those who tried and failed and tried again.

Like in the old story about the soda pop inventor who tried for a perfect product but gave up because 6-Up was too bitter, Menachem Begin never would have been elected prime minister when he ran the ninth time if he had given up after the eighth. Peres lost twice, and was victorious a third time. After Rabin's assassination - another prime minister elected after he came back from a painful defeat - Peres was accepted as the self-evident leader, without any challengers in the party, as if he were the 70-year-old Golda Meir called in a hurry from the party's secretariat as leader, to prevent Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon facing off in a competition. Peres lost at the ballot box, and didn't repeat his partial victory of 1984. But he had already been compensated, and the voters refused to give him another chance.

The early Sharon, eager for battle, reached the Likud leadership because of his ruthless image but because of it he was stopped there, and didn't make it over the final hurdle. When the time came to fill the empty chair left behind by Begin, the Likud preferred its own version of Golda, Yitzhak Shamir. Sharon wasn't tempted to repeat the mistakes the impatient Ezer Weizman made, slamming the door when he left, regretting it, and trying to come back in through the window. Even after his removal from the Defense Ministry and Shamir's crowning, Sharon continued challenging the new leader in lost causes, to keep his power as a bother, as someone who has to be taken into consideration, and finally as the tribal elder. It was a two-act play: First he fought Shamir, and then he turned into him.

The passing deviation of the direct election system brought Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak on its wings, and they were dazzled by their successive victories. George Bush Sr. once asked some intellectually haughty aides "if you're so smart, how come I'm president and you're not?" Netanyahu and Barak never asked. Their arrogance said it all. Now, no longer unvanquished, and survivors of painful police investigations (as is Sharon), both are more mature and somehow more serene. The 40-percent defeat against Sharon didn't bankrupt Netanyahu but enriched him with more founder's capital than any of the other three or four rivals for the crown after Sharon. The first loss, as a disaster that imposes a sharp choice between recovery or fading away, is what's missing from Amram Mitzna's resume and is expected to strike him in another eight weeks. If he exploits it as a character strengthener, he will be a better candidate next time.