As Netanyahu's coalition struggles, Peres may need to step in
President Shimon Peres must decide if he's ready to do what he does best - present his vision of the future in order to fend off disaster.
A little voice bearing sensational news has been making itself heard in recent weeks near the President's Residence: President Shimon Peres, it whispers, has gone back half a century in time to the 1950s to resume his position as "the man in the blue suit." That's how he was known back then when he made hundreds of visits to French government offices behind the backs of both the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli embassy in Paris. Peres was consumed those days with carrying out the historic mission of creating the magnificent Israeli arms industry, at the behest of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Present-day Peres, the whispering voice continues, is not only a president of ceremonies, condolence visits or festive speeches. He is also deeply involved in drawing up policy. He has been at work writing plans, documents and proposals, which make their way overseas, return and again are sent on their way to mysterious correspondents. The president holds regular meetings with senior officials of the Palestinian Authority and with international figures. He has burned up the presidential phone line speaking with leaders and foreign ministers, in an attempt to move things forward. He spends hour upon hour with the Israeli chief of staff and with the heads of the intelligence community.
The president's aides emphasize that these are not courtesy calls or "briefings," but full-fledged work meetings.
Every Sunday morning he meets for two hours with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The message is that things are happening, that drama is unfolding behind the scenes, that Peres is engaged in the revival of the political process vis-a-vis Israel's neighbors in order to stem what he calls "a strategic danger to Israel" in the wake of the regional impasse.
People who have spoken with Peres of late are hearing grim and apocalyptic prophecies unlike anything he has ever voiced before. Not only about the peace process but also about the image of the country, which is becoming ever uglier, about the revulsion he feels at the phenomena of xenophobia and persecution of foreigners, and about the damage being done to Israel by the dark letters recently issued by rabbis and their wives.
At his advanced age and with his vast experience and way of thinking, Peres identifies himself with the state. And he sees all his enterprises drowning in the sea. In 2011, will Shimon Peres surprise us all - and surprise himself, too - by shedding the suffocating uniform of the figurehead and saying what he thinks publicly, in a clear voice and with a great outcry? Many people are pressing him to take that course, some of them opposition figures with whom he meets frequently.
"You are the most popular figure in Israel, and one of the world's most highly regarded leaders," they tell him constantly, "and what good does it do us?" He can invite himself to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the next two months, do so in private and explain to him that the continuation of the present nonexistent peace process will cause the Labor Party to leave the government, which will then be succeeded by an extremist caretaker government of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox, before there are new elections.
In other words, a whole year has gone down the drain. Peres will tell Obama that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to move ahead but is afraid to and that therefore he, the American president, must step up the pressure, dive into the heart of the conflict, invite the leaders to something more than a photo opportunity, at which he will "bang their heads together" - as one of Peres' predecessors, President Ezer Weizman, suggested to the U.S. administration more than a decade ago.
The man who always strove for the public's love has received it in abundance in the past few years. But he is not taking advantage of it. He is storing it up. His term as president still has more than three years remaining. It will be his first and last term, as stipulated by the law. He will be more than 90 years old when he leaves the President's Residence. And no, he will not run again for prime minister, even though the thought has undoubtedly crossed his mind.
Peres can invite Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad to the President's Residence with cameras from around the world reporting the event and press them to return to the negotiating table. He can invite himself for a presidential visit in Ramallah. And he can speak out more clearly and more trenchantly than he usually does in his speeches - though a close reading between the lines reveals them to be laced with pessimism and doom-saying. If there is a national figure today who is esteemed and to whom the nation will listen, it is Peres. Maybe the way to induce the prime minister to act is through the public. If Peres truly believes, as he says in private conversations, that in 2011 Israel will face the genuine possibility of economic sanctions by the European Union, joining the ranks of countries like North Korea and Iran, will he be able to look in the mirror at the end of the year and tell himself that he did everything he could to avert the disaster?
"What do you want from me, I'm not the prime minister," he tells people who urge him to burst the boundaries of the presidency. "I prefer to do things quietly, by persuasion and with agreement. I have learned a few things in my life. Sometimes it's better to work in this way in order not to generate anger and destroy friendships." Over the past year and nine months, precisely, he and Netanyahu have experienced a beautiful friendship. Despite Peres' anger at promises that were violated, he still believes in this friendship. He thinks it is meant to allow him to act behind the scenes, when he be taking into account the possibility that it is putting him to sleep and preventing him from doing what he is obliged to do.
The political establishment is in election mode. The accepted view across the political spectrum today is that Labor will leave the government in February or March of the new year. The Netanyahu coalition will survive for a few months with the help of the National Union, and then the Knesset will dissolve. Elections will be held at the beginning of 2012, at the latest. Peres knows that time is running out. In the weeks ahead, he will have to decide whether to shift his political activity to the center of the stage. In another three months, on March 31, 2011, the Netanyahu government and Shimon Peres will mark the second anniversary of their terms in office. It's already a cliche to say that 2011 will be the year of decision for Iran, for Hamas, for Hezbollah - and for all of them together. It will also be the year of decision for Peres.