Labor Party chair Shimon Peres worked for hours on the speech he will deliver today in the Knesset plenum. He corrected and erased and corrected again. He borrowed at least one sentence from Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, who in the second debate against President George W. Bush said: "The military's job is to win the war, the president's job is to win the peace."
Peres liked the idea. He'll use it, in some form or other. Peres will never give up a nice play on words. For example, the one he will use today in addressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: "We'll give you a safety net, not a camouflage net."
"Camouflage" is how Peres describes the Sharon plan exposed on Friday by attorney Dov Weisglass, the prime minister's adviser, in an interview with Ari Shavit in Haaretz Magazine. Weisglass said in the interview that the disengagement plan was designed to stop the political process. Peres says that he was surprised to read this. In his many conversations with Sharon, he received a different impression.
"What Weisglass said is in contradiction to Sharon's statements. It has no basis, nor is it realistic. Who will agree to such a thing? Does anyone think that we'll support it - the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip - and that's it? Sharon's denial doesn't deny anything. He said that he's faithful to the road map [peace plan], but that there's no partner. Everything is theoretical. That's how it is when the decision was transferred from the Knesset to the Likud Party Central Committee," says the Labor leader.
Two weeks from now, between October 25 and October 27, Sharon intends to bring the disengagement plan up for Knesset approval. Peres, contrary to assessments, says that if what is brought before the Knesset is the June 6 cabinet decision (which is Sharon's declared intention), the Labor Party will have difficulty supporting it.
"The government decision doesn't speak of the evacuation of settlements, but of the fact that the cabinet will discuss, in the future, whether to evacuate settlements, and which ones," says Peres. "It's very doubtful whether we will vote in favor of that. I will request clarifications from the prime minister, open and public clarifications that the government decision is specifically referring to the evacuation of settlements. If we don't get them, we won't be able to vote in favor."
Is it clear, he was asked, that a clarification of that kind contradicts the cabinet decision and is liable to get Sharon into trouble with his ministers? "That's not my business," replies Peres.
Peres' threat can be interpreted in several ways: He believes Weisglass more than he believes Sharon; this is his way of taking revenge on the prime minister for dragging his feet during the negotiations for a unity government, which are on hold (Be tough with Sharon, and in November he'll come to you, one of Peres' associates said to him recently). And another possibility: On the eve of the return of former prime minister Ehud Barak to the party arena, Peres is choosing to adopt some of the aggressive rhetoric that Barak uses against Sharon, rhetoric that is beginning to sound more pleasant and acceptable to the ears of many Labor party activists.
Without the support of Labor, the disengagement will not receive a majority in the Knesset. The Labor Party will be accused of being responsible for the failure of the only chance of evacuating the settlements in Gaza. Can Peres withstand the pressure? It's hard to believe that he can. Meanwhile, right before the winter session of the Knesset, he is demonstrating toughness. He rejects the position of his associate, MK Haim Ramon, who believes that Labor not only has to support the disengagement, but has to support the prime minister in everything: neither submitting a motion of no-confidence nor supporting no-confidence motions.
"I don't accept that," says Peres. "We can never support the policy of [Finance Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Besides, since when do we promise blind support? I don't accept this idea, that our vote is automatic. In the Knesset there has always been discussion among all the parts of the house. I will want to understand what I'm voting for."
In private conversations with MKs who are close to him, Peres expresses serious disappointment with Sharon. I waited and waited, he says. Arik (Sharon) bears all the responsibility.
Imagine what would have happened to us, said a leading member of the Labor Party yesterday, had we entered the government, and two weeks later the interview with Weisglass had been published? We would have been massacred. We would have looked as though we were lending support to this concept of evacuating 17 settlements and freezing the peace process for 15 years, as Weisglass said.
"The issue of the unity government," says Peres, "is not on the agenda. The Likud central committee decided against a unity government. Once the Likud boasted of the fact that it is always in favor of a unity government, and in favor of concern for the weak and in favor of Greater Israel. Now everything is finished."
And if an invitation comes from Sharon today, how will Peres behave? "This evacuation that Weisglass is talking about?!" he shouts. "We won't go for that. We won't enter the government for that."
Labor will be blamed if, because of its refusal to join the government, there's no disengagement, not even the disengagement that Weisglass is talking about. "But nobody is inviting us," replies Peres.
Peres believes that had Sharon received a majority at the Likud convention, the negotiations for a unity government would have ended positively, within a few days. At the time, after the defeat at the convention, Sharon asked the Labor leader to wait patiently until the appropriate circumstances for renewing negotiations were created. Peres agreed. He insisted on not dismantling Labor's coalition negotiating team. In order to leave an opening, in order not to be blamed for torpedoing the negotiations.
Not going anywhere
Even now, in spite of Weisglass, in spite of the anger, Peres is not closing the door. He never closes a door, because he never goes anywhere. If an invitation comes from Sharon, the honorable coalition negotiating team of the Labor Party will be in Kfar Hamaccabia even before the waiters arrive with the refreshments.
The question is whether the invitation will ever arrive. Peres seems more skeptical than ever. His party has the impression that the main effort of Sharon's associates, and mainly of his son, Omri, is now being directed toward the ultra-Orthodox. If the ultra-Orthodox - United Torah Judaism, to be more precise - promise to provide support from the outside, mainly for the budget, the Sharon government will be able to survive for at least another year even without the Labor Party. And Labor will not be able to enter the government after January 2005. It will be too close to the elections.
Peres says he doesn't see elections happening in 2005: "Nobody in the Knesset is interested in that. All the parties are declining in numbers. The Likud will absorb a harsh blow, all the pollsters tell me that. Why should Sharon go to elections? Do the Arabs want elections?"
This prediction by Peres can be interpreted in several ways. On the one hand, it is definitely possible that he is right and Sharon will survive. After all, Sharon, like Peres, isn't going anywhere. They are both professional survivors. On the other hand, one has to remember that Peres is looking inward, at his own party.
If there are no elections, why is there any rush to replace the chair of the Labor Party? A group of party MKs wants to move the primaries up to this coming March. March 6th, to be specific. Peres says that he will soon convene the party's central committee and the decision will be made there. He refuses to say whether he'll run.
"They don't want to call it an `ousting.' All right, they don't have to," he nods his head tiredly. "Let them not call it ousting. It's really not directed at me. It's directed at every chairman. I've held the position for a year and a half. And these are already the third primaries. It's a little too much, isn't it?"
In his Knesset speech today, Peres will quote that statement by Democratic candidate Kerry. But at the same time, the Republican party in Florida is quoting him - Peres. On the table in Peres' Tel Aviv office there's a photocopy of a flyer, with his picture alongside a long passage apparently taken from what he said about Saddam Hussein immediately after the American invasion of Iraq.
"Since Hitler and Stalin there has been no despot like Saddam Hussein," writes the Republican party in Florida, quoting Peres. "He initiated two wars that cost millions of lives. He killed Kurds and Iranians ... If Europe had gone to war against Hitler two years earlier, all of history would have been different. I think that it was a brave decision, made at the right time [that is, the decision to go to war - Y.V.].
"When you go to vote on November 2," it says on the bottom of the page in large letters, "ask yourself: In whose hands will you feel more secure? On whom can you depend to stand alongside Israel during times of crisis?"
Peres was not asked and did not agree to serve as a spokesman for Bush. Almost four years ago, Florida granted victory, by a very small margin, to George W. Bush. This is a state full of Jews, the vast majority of them elderly; pensioners who came to the Sunshine State to spend the rest of their days pleasantly and in idleness. They may identify with Peres, who is their age. But he doesn't identify with them at all.
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