Travels With Shimon

A former 'Peres boy' remembers the bitter campaign of 1981, as he tried to keep up with his tireless boss, as they moved from one appearance to another, and the day in Jerusalem when someone threw a tomato at the man who is now president.

We split the days up between us and mainly the nights. Yossi Beilin was married with two small children and I was still single, and both of us wanted to have personal lives as well. "Peres boys" that we were, we barely managed to keep up with the pace. Shimon Peres, now the president of Israel, did not agree to pass up a single evening; the Sisyphean and entirely unimportant work of going around the country, mainly to the neglected party branch offices, was endless and we spent scores of hours in meaningless chitchat with the most minor of party hacks and at bland family celebrations and barren, hollow speeches.

In the second-hand white Oldsmobile, with Haim Borba (now long deceased) at the wheel and Shimon next to him - "Call your comrade by his first name," party secretary-general Haim Bar-Lev had written up on the bulletin board at the entrance to party headquarters - and I in the back seat. From where I was sitting, these trips seemed very frustrating. There were burdensome silences that lasted for hours as Shimon used every spare minute to tan his face or take a short nap, in compensation for the short nights. "How was I?" he would ask at the end of every meeting or bar mitzvah or remote wedding. It was hard to believe even then, but this closed and very famous man needed small doses of encouragement, even after all those years, after every success.

Those were difficult times for me. Menachem Begin was speechifying in the city squares, Yitzhak Rabin came out with his memoirs. To this day I remember in detail the gas station on the outskirts of Afula where we stopped late one evening. I got out to use the public telephone for a call to hear what Rabin had said about him at the press conference marking the publication of his book. "Indefatigable schemer," I told him when I came back to the car. Not a muscle moved in his face and he lit another short Kent. There was something very stylish about the way he held the cigarette, as he blew the blue smoke out in his very own way.

The deplorable election campaign of 1981 was at its height. At the tatty Migdal Cinema in Holon somebody threw a stink bomb; a police car and police on horseback rescued us from Sacher Park in Jerusalem. This week I remembered that event, as Peres entered the Knesset compound, a few hundred meters from there, again accompanied by mounted police. More than a quarter of a century has gone by since then; the police on horseback are the same police on horseback, the police are the same police, and Peres, the same Peres, has changed from an enemy to a beloved.

It was the Mimouna - the Moroccan Jewish celebration that is marked on the day after the final day of Passover - and like all the politicians, Peres went to flatter members of the North African communities. He always asked me whether our host - after the meeting there was always a meal - was an Ashkenazi (a Jew of Eastern or Central European origin) or a Sephardi (a Jew with origins in the Muslim countries). He preferred the generosity of the latter, with the whiskey and the open table, to the Ashkenazis' mayonnaise-saturated salads . After the mufletta - piles of crepes eaten with butter and honey - we moved on to the stage set up for dignitaries, a local Hyde Park, which all the politicians from all the parties passed through, scattering baseless promises to sweating barbecuers.

I knew his speeches by heart, including the witticisms: the one about the vineyard owner who on his deathbed told his son that it's possible to make wine from grapes, not just from water, and the one about the postman who fell in love with the woman to whom he was bringing love letters from her beloved. I also knew all his verbal slips and his malapropisms, which my colleague Boaz Apfelbaum collected in a notebook. One example: Peres referred to the African country as "Etopia." In our farewell conversation several years later, perhaps the only frank conversation we ever had with one another, he told me that I had seen him from too close up and that was the reason I was so critical of him. "Even when you wake up in the morning with a top model, you see the blackheads and you smell her breath," he said to me then, and his words are engraved in my heart forever.

He began his speech; the atmosphere was hostile. In those days there were still election rallies. I can't remember now, some 26 years later, whether he had come to the joke about the postman, whether he had set out the profound advantages of the Jordanian option yet and whether he had already spoken about making the Negev bloom and developing the Galilee. I only remember the red object that suddenly flew toward us. I was standing at his side. When no one is there, you become someone: In the absence of bodyguards, I became a bodyguard. In my innocence I was convinced that it was an apple. The red object advanced toward us at great speed, coming up red, and I shot out my hand to fend it off and save the man who was to become the ninth president of Israel from its destructive blow.

Whoops, the low trajectory object hit my protective hand, which was extended in the way one protects a child, and whoops came the stinging surprise. The apple was a tomato. It crashed on my hand, smashing completely, and its juice dribbled down the front of my clean white shirt. I was dressed up that day because in the afternoon an appointment had been made for us with an American senator. The white shirt became red. I don't know which hurt more: the loss of my shirt or the loss of my dignity.

In any case, the signal had been given, the tomato did its job and the masses began to riot. More and more objects were hurled from all directions. "Peres go home," they shouted in a surging chorus but Peres never went home. His face paled, or perhaps it went gray. He did not manage to finish his speech; the rabble's cries drowned out his traditional "just as it is impossible to be halfway pregnant, it is impossible to be halfway a democracy." The mob came closer to the stage, threatening to destroy, really, until some police pushed us forcefully into the police Ford Cortina. The Cortina had to drive wildly in reverse and the police horses slashed a way for us though the angry mob, which beat mercilessly on the police rescue vehicle. What was the mob angry at then? At Mapai (the precursor of today's Labor Party) and at the discrimination, at television entertainer Dudu Topaz's derogatory remark about Jews from the Muslim countries ("riffraff," he called them) and Mordechai Gur's "We'll screw then like we screwed the Arabs," at Rabin's "indefatigable schemer" and at Peres' opposition to the attack on the Iraqi reactor, at the kibbutzim and at the Ashkenazim. Everything channeled into one rally, into one tomato.

After we were rescued, our faces burning with shame, we went to the meeting with the American senator. A pianist played softly in the lobby of the luxurious hotel and Peres spoke once again about the Jordanian option as though nothing had happened, as though there had never been a tomato.

This week, when the mass of admiring visitors cheered that same man, in that same city, at a distance of a few hundred meters and 26 years from the site of that tumble, I couldn't help but think about that tomato and this Peres and everything that has happened, and hasn't happened, to me, to him and to tomatoes since then.