After the previous elections, in one of the debates as to whether Labor should join Sharon's government, which have become an inseparable part of Israel's political ritual, Shimon Peres warned his friends about the cruel fate awaiting them in the opposition: "Running after reporters for a headline at the bottom of page nine."
Indeed, during the 18 months that followed, Peres - as foreign minister in Sharon's cabinet - was frequently a front-page item. In some cases headlines heralded his successes in marketing peace plans to the prime minister, and in others they relayed how Sharon had circumvented him.
Oddly enough, after he paid such a heavy price for the dubious honor of being Sharon's PR specialist, life in the opposition still seems ominous to a man like him. Peres belongs to a select group of statesmen who have the power to change things without needing a title or a job-description to do so.
He himself has said that he waits for no one's permission to work for peace, and that he does not care if he is dubbed "a tireless subverter."
Instead of squabbling with his ranch buddy, Peres could have used the last two years to negotiate with Ramallah and Cairo - from the opposition benches. Instead of taking insult after insult from his government partner Tzachi Hanegbi for "the Oslo crimes," the Nobel Prize laureate could have devoted his time to diplomatic efforts in Washington and Brussels.
With Peres and his team in government, two years after the "Oslo camp" had lost the lead to terror, Sharon was able to once again turn the elections into a referendum about Oslo and terrorism. Ehud Olmert, who managed the Likud's elections campaign, told the Economist the morning after the elections, that the public was punishing Labor and the left for two sins: the failure of the Oslo process and the intifada that followed. The outcome could have been different, had Labor managed to turn the elections into a plebiscite on a peace agreement and security arrangements.
Three months after his friends used every opportunity they had to publicly declare that there is no partner for talks on the Palestinian side, it is no wonder Amram Mitzna was having a hard time mobilizing supporters for renewing negotiations with Yasser Arafat.
Moving to the opposition does not necessarily spell an end to Labor's peace plan, which is based on the Clinton alignment and Taba understandings. Ami Ayalon has reached an agreement with Prof. Sari Nusseibeh about the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, border revisions, a Palestinian right of return that will apply to the Palestinian state only and - of course - a complete cessation of violence.
Instead of helping Sharon from inside the government to mount hurdles in the path of the Quartet's "road map,", as he had done with the Mitchell and Tenent plans, Labor should offer a road map of its own. Mitzna need be afraid of mobilizing support abroad either. He can learn from Sharon and Netanyahu how an opposition leader can explain to Congressmen and the leaders of the Jewish community how the Israeli government has gone wrong, and how it is misleading the United States. They can tell him how they had tried to convince senior officials in the U.S. administration that the policies of Likud are more consistent with American interests than those of Labor.
By sitting in the same government with Sharon and Eitam, Peres gave the Palestinians the impression that there is no material distinction between the settlers poaching their land and "the Oslo architects" who are letting them run loose. With only six Meretz delegates in the Knesset, Labor is practically the only Zionist entity there to stop the erosion of basic human rights in the territories (Shinui has yet to prove itself on this issue).
Peres can show Labor's young generation that even at 79-and-a-half, it is no shame to go out on the street and challenge the government with queries. Peres surely remembers how in the election of 1981, after four years in opposition, he was the one to bring back all the 15 seats Labor had lost to the one-term-party of Dash. The road back to the government, and from there to the Madrid and Oslo agreements, starts at the bottom of page nine.
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