Humiliation falls on Peres — and Barak, by extension

Professionally, Shimon Peres has accomplished much more than almost anyone else has in modern Israeli history. On a personal level, however, Peres is an Israeli human tragedy.

Even following the tremendous public sentiment on the heels of the Rabin assassination, Peres failed to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 vote for prime minister. In a way, his stunning Monday defeat to Moshe Katsav, an obscure legislator in the opposition Likud Party, was even worse.

Peres has long had a roller coaster-style popularity among the Israeli public that had heightened recently. But his presidential loss among Knesset members — undoubtedly a "lesson" for Ehud Barak for which he took the fall — positioned him once and for all to be a loser in the political establishment. It brought back the haunting memory of a decade ago, when Peres had the Knesset convened in special session during the intermediate days of Pesach, a very rare occurrence.

As happened in April 1990, a month after Yitzhak Shamir's government had fallen in a no-confidence vote, the then-Labor Party chairman said he had the support of enough ministers to form a coalition. In the last moment, however, the majority did not materialize, and Shamir had the last laugh when he re-established a coalition in June.

Someone else is always to blame. In 1990, it was a part of the Agudath Israel parliamentary faction that did Peres in. In 1996, Arab voters and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union were blamed for the ever-so narrow margin of loss to Netanyahu.

On Monday, ministers of Barak's One Israel were crying bloody murder not only against the fervently religious Shas Party, but also at a few defectors from within, accusing them of abandoning Peres. The presidential embarrassment is also seen as symbolic of Barak's inability to pass anything in the Knesset as his governing coalition increasingly wavers on his willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians for a lasting peace agreement.

The common denominator in all these accusations is that Peres lost.

The suggestion was made yesterday that the former prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister should vie for some position in the international arena, where he is appreciated. One pundit quipped that had the likes of President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair been voting yesterday, Peres would have won hands down.

The proposal was made after the 1996 defeat that Peres be considered for U.N. secretary-general. One problem with that was a potential scenario in which the United Nations would condemn Israel for some action, putting Peres in an especially awkward situation. The problem for Peres is not a lack of work. His position as regional cooperation minister in the Barak cabinet has served as an extension to the activities of his peace center. Still, much remains on his agenda toward establishing what he terms a "new Middle East."

On the heels of Monday's vote, there was anticipation that Peres might break his public silence on how the current prime minister is running the peace process. Will he criticize Barak? Does he also consider the premier responsible for his defeat? Barak had been concerned that Peres as president would be a shadowing figure. The question was whether even outside the boundaries of Beit Hanassi — the president's residence — he would promote his role as an elder statesman.

Peres himself was in a state of shock. When he handed in his letter of resignation as minister to the cabinet on Sunday, in anticipation of gaining the presidency, he did not anticipate that he would be left with the option of taking the letter back before the 48-hour waiting period expired.