Shimon Peres’ angry quip after being narrowly upset by Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election was supposed to be rhetorical. But it came to symbolize the Peres paradox: Israel’s Nobel Peace laureate never managed to win over voters during a 30-year-long string of defeats.
Today, as the 83-year-old elder statesman seeks the ceremonial post of president in a parliamentary vote that’s thought to be too close to call, he may well be setting himself up for more disappointment.
With a record of three defeats and one draw as a prime ministerial candidate, two primary election defeats for Labor Party chairman and a failed run for presidency, Mr. Peres could qualify as an Israeli political Charlie Brown. Why take another chance?
“He’s an optimist. He’s a dreamer,” said Yoram Dori, a senior advisor to Mr. Peres for most of the last 16 years, sitting just outside the deputy prime minister’s office as lawmakers and aides wished Mr. Peres good luck. “He has taken it into consideration that he might lose, but he thinks he can serve the country as president. He is ready to take the risk.”
Because the race is a popularity contest among the 120-member parliament, interpersonal politics can trump ideology, potentially playing to the strength of rival Reuven Rivlin, the Likud Party nominee known for his gregarious personality.
Meanwhile, Mr. Peres, the candidate of beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, must fend off a rival from the left: Labor lawmaker and former New York Consul General Colette Avital.
But some observers believe that this time may be different. Mr. Peres’ history of previous defeats may translate into a sympathy vote, while his departure from party politics has allowed the public to focus on his public-service record while forgetting a politicking style that annoyed many. And his supporters have made the case that he might be able to restore some of the respectability to an institution tarnished by the sexual scandals of Moshe Katsav, the Likud candidate who scored a surprise victory over Mr. Peres in the 2000 presidential race.
“Some people feel that they can’t not elect him because he’s a veteran, because he wants it so much, and because seven years ago he lost,” said one former minister who served with Mr. Peres as a fellow Labor Party minister. “They feel sorry, they feel that he deserves some sort of compensation, even though he’s [nearly] 84 years old and it’s hard to believe one can function for seven years at this post effectively.”
At stake, in some ways, is Mr. Peres’ continued relevance following years of decline in Israeli politics.
“He would like to continue to play a part on the international level, and on the national level,” said Moshe Shahal, a former Labor cabinet minister. “In a way, he would like to prove he can make it after he lost in the last election.”