Life Without Him?

Let's put it this way: Even if he were running for head of the tenants committee of an isolated lighthouse in which he was the only tenant, Shimon Peres would lose by 0.6 percent.

Let's put it this way: Even if he were running for head of the tenants committee of an isolated lighthouse in which he was the only tenant, Shimon Peres would lose by 0.6 percent. And that, too, after a long sleepless night of uncertainty, at the end of which he would show up with his face crestfallen as he has done every decade since the middle of the last century and blame the failure on the Gulf Stream, the melting of the polar icecaps and of course the crumpled ballot that turned up in the party's Zarnuga branch.

His defeat this week transformed his mythological image of "Peres the loser" from a portrait cast in bronze into a sculpture fashioned from monumental marble, a brother to Sisyphus and Prometheus. He's a person who bears a bizarre ancient curse: a man who has devoted his whole long life and all his desires, without rest or surcease, to courting the public's love, but who never reaches the goal of an electoral mandate of trust.

True, it would not have been civilization as we knew it, or the laws of nature known to humanity, if Peres rather than Amir Peretz had won the Labor Party leadership elections (or any other elections) on Wednesday. "The results of the elections truly raise an extraordinary eyebrow," he said after his defeat, in his tangled way. But what is "extraordinary" here? If he had won THAT would have been "the raising of an extraordinary eyebrow."

It is not only that he loses. In addition to the blows and to being chased out of town, he will always insist on eating some kind of putrid fish: He will not rest until his defeat is accompanied by ugliness, humiliation and grotesquerie so much so that one sometimes suspects that deep down he actually gets some kind of sadomasochistic kick out of it. Even at the age of 82, burdened (though not sated) with honors, nothing in him has been becalmed, no wisdom of the aged has dawned in him; once again we saw the "most acclaimed person in the entire world" jump like the least of the functionaries with grumbles and complaints about election rigging, with the permanent plaint that he lost again only because he received the scandal of it! fewer votes than his rival.

Still, even as Peres was wandering Ariel Sharon's corridors of power like the ghost of Canterville, there have been some who view Peres' very survival in political life as a kind of achievement in itself. In Israeli society, where people's eyes do not look ahead in hope, but life exists in constant fear of the unknown, that perception carries a grain of truth. Israel is a community or a family more than it is a nation, and it needs father or grandfather figures, even if they are wolves in sheep's clothing. Peres could not have survived for so many decades in public life if the public had not clung to his sheer accumulated presence and even loved to hate him. Even without an official mandate, the public, at least in the polls and in its heart's desire, seemed to want Peres to always be there, if only because he was always there.

From a certain point, a politician's very survival becomes a productive asset, which accumulates seniority and interest, and when it crosses the line of minimal service or a certain age, it itself becomes the message. And the more the person in question is desperate and unrestrained, the more his survival becomes a national goal in its own right, without any connection to the amount of damage he caused in the past or his ability to act beneficially in the future. From this point of view, Sharon has been playing a part identical to that of Peres in the past few years. Though he may seem to be the opposite of Peres the "winner" to his "loser" he is actually his twin brother.

For the past five years we have been riveted as though our own lives depended on it to the survival struggles of these two ancient but vigorous and ambitious men, who are grasping at power as though suspended above an abyss. No, there is nothing graceful or noble about their struggle. On the contrary: It is struggle for survival ugly, sweaty, cynical and replete with dirty tricks. But we gasp in fear whenever a clod of earth falls from under their feet, or a stone shifts beneath their fingers.

It looks as though the movie with the two old men is about to end the end credits are rolling by and they are hanging by a thread: In fact, they have already fallen. But wait, wait who knows? Our head tells us that will not live forever, that in the end they will lose their grip, that the time has come for change, for new tidings; but the heart (especially after our experience with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) still says for a moment, "stop," skips a beat at the victory of Amir Peretz, however welcome and desirable he is in terms of political logic. Yes, we want a change, we want new blood. True, we wasted 50 years. But what is it over already?