How to Become Prime Minister

People with the Shin Bet's VIP Protection Unit were showing an interest in Amir Peretz's political maneuvering this week.

People with the Shin Bet's VIP Protection Unit were showing an interest in Amir Peretz's political maneuvering this week. If he removes the Labor Party from the government, it turns him overnight into the opposition leader, which comes with a business-class protection package (first class goes only to the prime minister), an upgraded car, maybe even an armored one, serious-looking guards, advance teams to check security wherever he is heading, crowd filtering and a guard booth outside his Sderot home. The current opposition head, Yosef Lapid, will unceremoniously be stripped of his security, and the same could happen to MK Shimon Peres, who hasn't been foreign minister for three years, and last served as prime minister nine years ago. The Shin Bet discussion regarding Peres' position has yet to be completed.

The minute he starts getting photographed while surrounded by prestigious signs of state security, Peretz will move up the ladder of public adaptation to his prime ministerial candidacy. The candidacy, in and of itself, is not enough. Azmi Bishara was also a candidate in his day. To be taken as a serious candidate, Peretz has to break the barrier of incredulity and credibly embody the role of a potential premier. Benjamin Netanyahu was in that position in 1996, and was only freed of it via the generosity of his rival on the eve of the elections, when during a televised broadcast, Peres insisted on entrapping himself. Peres enabled Netanyahu to cast himself, in prime time, as prime minister.

The image is worth tens of thousands of votes. Ariel Sharon would appear ridiculous if he tried to portray himself as a candidate to head the Histadrut, and Peretz still is not convincing as a potential prime minister. He is weighed down by the double weight of those step-brothers who share the last name of Marx - Groucho and Karl. Peres' decision to lay in ambush in the field as a deputy to the new leader, who defeated him, shows that he believes that Peretz could quickly fade if he is helped not to change and is set off balance.

In his current, alpha version, Peretz is indeed not a worthy rival to Sharon. He's like a boxer who surprisingly won a middleweight fight and is now challenging the heavyweight - good momentum is not enough to cancel the differences. Israelis might cheer quick-shooting pilots, but don't just hand over a jumbo jet wth 400 passengers to them. See the case of Ezer Weizman.

The most convenient way to win the premiership in Israel is from the premiership, and not by elections for the Knesset. Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meirl, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir all won when the prime minister quit (or died); but the easiest way to lose the prime minister's seat is from it.

The elections are supposed to be a referendum for the sitting premier. If his failures outweigh his advantages, in the eyes of the voter, he loses to his challenger: Shamir to Rabin, Peres to Netanyahu, Netanyahu to Barak, Barak to Sharon. A necessary condition for toppling a premier is for the heir apparent to be seen in the eyes of many, aside from his initial electoral base, as being capable of serving as prime minister. If the candidate does not exude authority, stability and responsibility to the extent that is necessary to run a country in danger, he or she won't be able to enlist more voters. They'll stay at home or their votes will be scattered in all sorts of directions. If Sharon manages to distract attention from the corruption and other problems in his administration, and to frame the election debate so that the main question is Peretz and his competency in the prime minister tender - not where he is coming from but where he is going - then Peretz will lose.

Netanyahu, the only prime minister who did not serve first as a minister, is a bad precedent for Peretz. Also worrisome is Peretz's apparent scorn thus far of his duty as a statesman to take a deep interest in security matters: How will he control the security establishment if he does not know it well; he's never even aspired to belong to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's sensitive subcommittees.

Last week, Peretz was the new pop-political idol. Refreshing, maybe even exciting, but not yet enough for the entirely different opera of being prime minister.