In six months, Shimon Peres ends his seven-year stint as President of Israel. At 91, he might be expected to enjoy his retirement after being immersed in national politics for some seven decades. Last survivor of the founding generation, he has served in every conceivable government post and gone through the portfolios of defense, foreign affairs, finance and even briefly as prime minister. He has even pocketed a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the Interim Accords Israel signed with Yasser Arafat in Oslo in 1993.
However, DEBKA Weekly's sources in Jerusalem reveal, resting on his laurels is the last thing on the mind of the oldest Israeli political pro still standing.
He tried angling for an extension of his term as president, only to discover that eleven candidates were already jostling in line for the job. So he decided to create a new political left of center bloc, with the object of toppling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-of-center merger with Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home).
The only allowance Peres makes to his advanced age is to refrain from aspiring to head the new grouping. He will be satisfied with the number two position on the parliamentary list – or a place of honor at the tail end. Although honor and status are high on his agenda – and he cherishes his international reputation as Israel’s elder statesman – what he cares about most are clout and influence, which he would claim in the capacity of a kind of grand old tribal wise man.
The nascent Peres lineup already dubbed “The American Israeli party”
More than a year ago, he started out with a roster of retired, middle aged former security figures, headed by former Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi and consisting of former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and Ashkenazi’s predecessor as armed forces chief, Dan Halutz. They were all new faces in politics.
The president shared with them a common platform, advocating brisk, sharply focused peace talks with the Palestinians built around Israel’s handover of substantial areas of the West Bank for a Palestinian state and the evacuation of the tens of thousands of settlers living outside the large blocs.
They all agreed that Israel should also drop its military option against Iran’s nuclear program.
Some insiders began to dub Peres’ brainchild 'The American-Israeli Party' – in respect of its close affinity to President Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East affairs.
But Peres first attempt at a stable of contenders went awry, when Ashkenazi was discovered to have engaged in a successful scheme with associates – while still in uniform as army chief – to obstruct the Netanyahu government’s decision to appoint Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as his successor.
One reason why Israel missed striking Iran
In contrast to the dovish clique led by Ashkenazi, Galant was all in favor of Israel striking Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent its acquisition of an atomic bomb.
Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, then Defense Minister, wanted Galant at the head of the armed forces for this very task.
A criminal probe was launched recently against Ashkenazi, now a civilian, on suspicion of forging documents to malign Galant and disqualify him for the top military spot.
With Ashkenazi out of the running, President Peres cast about for alternatives to head his new political bloc. According to our sources, the new cast he has chosen is built around two serving ministers and the leader of the opposition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, also Israel’s lead negotiator in the US-fostered talks with the Palestinians, and Yitzhak Herzog.
Lapid’s party (Yes Atid-Future) scored 19 Knesset seats (out of 120) at its first showing a year ago, but falling popularity has trimmed it down to a potential 10. Livni’s tiny party (The Movement) would likely retain its 6 seats.
Peres’s third pick, Herzog, is the newly-elected leader of the opposition Labor party, which commands 16 Knesset seats. According to the latest polls, Labor would edge down moderately to 14 if elections took place now.
For security ballast, Peres proposes to attach Dagan, Diskin and Halutz to the politicians.
Netanyahu warns Abbas against keeping two negotiating channels open
It must be said that the Israeli presidency is by law and custom a largely symbolic office supposed to be above and outside politics, whereas the prime minister heads the executive branch. None of Peres’ predecessors ventured to dabble like him in the political mainstream.
Netanyahu is well aware of Peres’ machinations, but out of respect for the presidency he stays quiet.
But he did react when he caught on to the president’s direct channel of communications bypassing the government with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. To keep it confidential, it is run by Peres’ most trusted confidant Avi Gil.
The prime minister was especially put out to discover that the president had used this secret channel to advise Abbas not to take too seriously Netanyahu's insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This time, the prime minister reacted sharply by posting a message to Abbas telling him he had better decide with which Israeli leader he is negotiating.