Israel has had a dozen prime ministers, but none of them groomed or appointed an heir in their lifetime. On the contrary, if a rising star was ever seen on the horizon, they snuffed it out when it was young. Gad Yaacobi, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, likes to say that every time he pushed for a political appointment, the Mapai old-timers used to bark at him: "First go spend two years in the Negev." As if they had.
The fear of successors was chiefly psychological: The moment I choose an heir, no matter who it is, he'll be after my chair, the prime minister would think to himself. When Menachem Begin announced to the Knesset in 1982 that he "couldn't go on," and was stepping down, David Levy leaped from his seat and declared with typical Beit She'anic pathos: "Don't worry, Menachem. You've got an heir." Since then, Levy has felt deprived, like a man who has lost his kingdom, and continues to revenge himself on those who leave him, time after time, in the lurch.
This week Shimon Peres confessed that he hasn't been successful in grooming an heir, which means he sees himself as a candidate for prime minister in the next elections. Actually, it sounds like he is the only former prime minister who has groomed an heir: himself. If it weren't so pathetic, it could be a barrel of laughs.
Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative has split the right, shaken the Likud and catapulted the country into a very unstable era. If he fails, his days in the prime minister's seat are numbered. If he tries to push the plan through by force, he could lose the support of the Likud. His two blunders - the referendum and the vote on partnership with Labor - have undoubtedly weakened his standing. Any attempt to forcibly implement the disengagement plan, relying on a narrow majority, could drag the country to the polls under fire, with the world twisting Israel's arm and the economy going downhill.
The Labor Party, whose heads have been squabbling for months over the portfolios they will get when Sharon brings them into the government, never considered the possibility that the Likud convention would veto the partnership. Instead of reviewing all the options ahead of time and being prepared for things like surprise elections, Labor was caught with its pants down.
Peres, his own heir apparent, has done untold harm to the party by not allowing it to establish itself as the chief opponent of the government. He and Sharon met privately and made whatever deal they made. It seemed like everything was all wrapped up: Peres would be deputy prime minister and foreign minister; Haim Ramon would be a second minister in the Foreign Ministry. A draft platform was drawn up for a unity government. There was only one thing Peres didn't take into account: the hex on Labor masterminded by Uzi Landau.
Instead of making a fool of himself, Peres could have promised support for the disengagement plan from the outside, just as Labor supported the evacuation of Yamit without joining the Begin administration. This way, the party could have bolstered the government on disengagement while hanging on to its virginity in the opposition and preserving its standing as a serious alternative to a Likud administration.
Instead of leaving Sharon with the burden of evacuating settlements, Peres has placed his party in shackles, turning it into a partner to any fiasco or civil war that could develop as the disengagement plan gets under way. The veto at the Likud convention will leave the Sharon government on flimsy legs after the disengagement, with no guidelines on how to proceed when the time comes to demarcate Israel's permanent borders and sign an agreement with the Palestinians. Labor, as it sits in the opposition, needs to be ripe and ready to take charge if Sharon falls.
Peres is responsible for the fact that his party is not equipped to seize power. He is to blame for the raging battle for succession. MK Dalia Itzik jokes that she is the only faction head in the Knesset with 18 prime ministers. In Peres' eagerness to join the Sharon administration as No. 2, his party has been reduced to crawling on its knees, waiting for Sharon to throw it a bone, rather than gearing up as a replacement. The Labor leadership needs some urgent rehabilitation, but that is never going to happen until Peres, a loser par excellence, closes up shop.
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