The Bathtub Kingdom

Even after the "election" of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer as party chairman, Shimon Peres remains the most authentic and durable symbol of the Labor Party - from the government of Golda Meir to the government of Ariel Sharon.

Were it not for the tragic expression so often on his face, and where it not for its bleak implications, it would be possible to burst out laughing at those appearances by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in which he pretends to be a gourmet and daintily particular each time he swallows another rotten egg from the escalation kitchen of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Peres also took a whiff of the renewal of the terror attacks - so predictable and perhaps even calculated in advance - following the elimination of Tanzim leader Raed Karmi, in a very Epicurean way, and, like an oenophile who detects an aromatic acidity, said this week: "It smells like the resumption of the intifada."

If there was any expression of resentment in this observation, Peres did a fine job of underplaying it, or at least of maintaining his ambivalence as to which side it was aimed - the Palestinian or the Israeli. However, it must be said to the foreign minister's credit that this cautious ambiguity was almost essential after his previous appearance in which he was asked about the provocative attempt on Karmi that intentionally disrupted weeks of relative quiet. And like someone with pretensions to looking like the oh-so innocent partner to the secret, as well as someone who disowns it, Peres said with an ironic smile: "I heard that it was a work accident."

And to the laughter of the correspondents, he hastened on to his next phase, which was waiting at the end of the corridor - a meeting with the British deputy foreign secretary. Here, with his respectable, neo-European visage, Peres expressed his hope that "the discussions on the cease-fire will continue."

What, in fact, these discussions will be about, and with whom they will be conducted, at a time when diplomatic talks are taboo as far as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is concerned, no one knows. But sublime matters, which, as far as Peres is concerned, are in no way affected by trivialities such as the demolition of houses in Rafah (an action in which he took good care not to get involved), the bulldozing of houses in Isawiyeh ("I opposed this," he declared after the fact), or the renewal of the selective assassination policy, with terror attacks coming in their wake.

It would appear that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has despaired, and rightly so, of the confrontation with the Sharon-Mofaz coalition. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion, and resigning with maximum effectiveness, he only clings more tightly to his established agenda that is decades old - to be a member of the government and to be considered respectable and cosmopolitan. In this matter, Peres is displaying admirable consistency, which stands in contradiction to his phenomenal adaptability in other areas; for example, in the matter of the peace process.

Yes, his most cherished possession - "the Oslo process" - somehow flew the coop and escaped his hands immediately after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was swallowed up in the smoke that rose from Kafr Kana in Lebanon, was pummeled in the compromises he made with the National Religious Party and the right, was strangled by Benjamin Netanyahu, was captured in the unskilled (and, most importantly, insultingly non-Peresian) hands of Ehud Barak, and finally gave up the ghost at Camp David only because Peres was not there for it.

Full of sound and fury, Peres went on to the "phenomenal failure" of Barak and the Labor Party in the elections. He, the big winner in the public opinion polls ("I could have defeated Sharon 51-48"), who has never lost except in reality, screamed his way to the leadership of the Labor Party and from there swarmed into Sharon's government, mouthing the immortal motto, which by chance the microphone picked up: "I will say everything the way you told me to."

From that moment on, the fate of Peres' peace process became the fate of his Jewish settlements in the territories: The moment it was taken out of his hands and placed in the care of others, his baby became the object of his scorn: "Who needs it?" he ridiculed, referring to the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative to stop the violence and renew the talks a short time after the government was established: "So, are we going to say `Yes' to everything some Arab writes?"

Since then, much blood has flowed; but President Moshe Katsav's hudna initiative two weeks ago was also rejected by Peres with the same amazing scorn: "We are trying to bring about a long-term peace agreement, one that will last forever... I don't understand why we have to bring about a cease-fire that will last for only a year, as the president is proposing."

In other words, a cease-fire for only one year is peanuts, as far as he, Peres, is concerned. How many victims could it save? Five hundred? One thousand? What is this when compared to the generations-long cease-fire (as opposed to Barak's permanent-shmermanent settlement) that only he, Shimon Peres, will bring - if and when, and if only, and were it not for. If only they had let him run on behalf of Meretz; or if only he hadn't gone to India; or were it not for the "work accidents" that befell Abu Hanoud and Raed Karmi and all the others, about which he only heard.

Even after the "election" of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer as party chairman, Shimon Peres remains the most authentic and durable symbol of the Labor Party - from the government of Golda Meir to the government of Ariel Sharon; the man of "if only" and "were it not for;" the "minister who represents" primarily himself; the fig leaf for each and every injustice and folly; the lightning rod for all fury; the weather vane for the winds of the times; the veteran king of the bathtub who is now bleaching and disinfecting - together with the remnants of his party - all the crimes of missed opportunity, escalation and provocation.

Perhaps it was not the Nobel Peace Prize that should have been awarded Peres, but rather the Nobel Prize for Physics.