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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 15:39 GMT
Viewpoint: Israel's lightning rod
By Amotz Asa-El
Jerusalem Post columnist

Former Labour Party leader Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres lost the Labour Party leadership this week
Shimon Peres' first electoral victory came in 1944, when he won the leadership of a socialist youth movement in British Palestine. It was also his last.

During the following six decades, he left an indelible imprint on Israel's history as the builder of its aerospace industry, architect of its nuclear programme, rehabilitator of its economy, and mastermind of its peace accords with Jordan and the Palestinians.

Yet Mr Peres lost 10 election contests: five for the premiership, one for Israel's presidency, and four for the Labour Party's leadership, including this week's humiliating bow to his own political creation, the humbly-born provincial mayor and union leader Amir Peretz.

The Israeli Nobel Laureate's record-setting series of defeats was initially dealt by generational peers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir and ultimately by baby-boomers Binyamin Netanyahu, Moshe Katsav and Mr Peretz.

They were not even born when Mr Peres was already engaging in high politics and grand-strategising as David Ben Gurion's protege.

Whether justly or not, he became the ultimate lightning rod for thousands of socially disenfranchised, politically disillusioned and ideologically alienated Israelis

The long list of defeats has made many suspect that the gifted statesman was politically jinxed.

He wasn't.

Mr Peres' electoral failures of course had an element of bad luck, considering that they were mostly narrow.

Yet the question should not be why he failed to somehow tip the scale and win at least one narrow victory himself, but why the tipping was always necessary in the first place.

And the answer is that, whether justly or not, he became the ultimate lightning rod for thousands of socially disenfranchised, politically disillusioned and ideologically alienated Israelis.


For some, the well-read, Harvard-educated, Polish-born product of the Jewish state's founding establishment personified the cosmopolitan Ashkenazi (European-rooted) elite they sometimes detested and always envied.

Born in 1923 in Poland
Emigrated to British-administered Palestine 1934
Member of Knesset since 1959
Has held many cabinet posts since the 1970s - most recently vice-premier since January 2005
Prime minister in 1984 and 1995-1996
Labour leader from June 2003 until November 2005

For others, he was the hopelessly uncharismatic technocrat whose fiery speeches and visionary posture sounded like poor imitations of Ben Gurion and Begin.

And for others yet, he was the pipe-dreamer who unwittingly helped touch off this decade's violence by choosing to waltz with Yasser Arafat.

Of course there was also that part of Israel that admired Mr Peres as a prophet, warrior and builder, and would him follow through thick and thin, but they represented the more affluent, better educated and demographically shrinking part of the country.

Hopes dashed

For his part, Mr Peres derived inspiration from his old friend Francois Mitterrand's, and his nemesis Menachem Begin's, rise to power after numerous electoral defeats.

Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat at talks in 2001
Mr Peres sought many times to securing a peace deal with Arafat

And as the years elapsed and Mr Peres surpassed by decades the ages at which those two became winners, he thought of Konrad Adenauer, whose leadership of West Germany into a glorious post-war era of peace and prosperity ended only when he was 87.

This week all hopes of becoming analogous with such tales of reversed fortunes and late blossoming were dashed once and for all.

Shimon Peres will instead be compared to Mikhail Gorbachev and FW de Klerk, whose ignition of political revolutions came at the expense of their personal careers.

In fact, should the peaceful and prosperous Middle East he so stubbornly envisioned emerge after all, Mr Peres may well be compared with Moses, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land but was barred by God from entering it.

Amotz Asa-El is a senior columnist for the Jerusalem Post and until recently was its executive editor. He is also wrote The Diaspora and the Lost Tribes of Israel.

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