Peres contributions toIsrael should be acknowledged

When Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had their well-publicized spat last week, right-wing Knesset ministers were quick to add fuel to the flames by attacking Peres.

It seems that much of the Right, both inside and outside the government, cannot forgive Peres for the fact that so many of his views have not changed: He still wants to talk to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat; he favors a settlement freeze; he still believes in the Oslo process.

Opposition to these views is easily understandable. But what is harder to understand is why the Right is unwilling to give Peres credit for all the ways in which he has changed. Peres is no Yossi Sarid or Yossi Beilin, stubbornly insisting that the violence of the last nine months is Israel's fault, and that all would be well if Israel would just give in to Arafat's demands.

More than almost anyone else in his party — the only other contender is Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — Peres has uncompromisingly placed the blame for the violence where it belongs, on Arafat's shoulders, and has worked to create a united front within Israel to combat this threat.

Though he was aided by Sharon's extreme (and sagacious) generosity in coalition negotiations, Peres nevertheless had to overcome fierce opposition within Labor to drag his party into the government, and he continues to have to battle his fellow Laborites to keep it there.

It is hard to overestimate the value of this contribution, which deprives Arafat of the opportunity to play Labor off against Sharon — and Arafat is a past master of the technique of getting the Israeli opposition to do his work for him.

It would be much harder for Sharon to take steps to combat Palestinian terror if the opposition were fighting him every inch of the way. It would have been virtually impossible for him to muster the international support he has thus far gained if Labor, rather than backing him, had tried to persuade the world that his policies were excessive rather than necessary.

And Arafat would have no incentive at all for compromise if he thought that the opposition was actively working to bring down the government and might soon replace Sharon with someone more complacent.

Peres also made a vital contribution to Israel's public relations efforts over the past few months. Not only has he presented Israel's case to the world with skill and verve, but also the very fact that he remains a committed leftist often makes his arguments more convincing.

Peres, for instance, generally favors international involvement, so it is particularly compelling when he argues against a United Nations presence here, explaining that the Palestinians do not need international protection; what they need is to stop the shooting.

"They do not need a defense force," he told the U.N. Security Council on March 15. "Israel has never initiated any act of violence; it has only responded to violence."

Similarly, as a man who openly favors a settlement freeze, Peres is the more convincing when he explains that the settlements are neither the cause of nor a justification for terror. The West, he said in an interview last month, "must not tell us 'there is terror because of your settlements'…It is very important that there be no justification or excuses [for terrorism]."

And as a leading advocate of financial aid to the Palestinians, he is uniquely persuasive when he explains that Israel cannot transfer money to the Palestinian Authority as long as it uses this money to pay the salaries of those committing terror attacks against Israelis. (When Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel tried to insist that the Palestinians use aid for "humanitarian causes," Peres responded dryly, "Saving Israeli lives is also a humanitarian cause.")

Willingness to give credit to one's ideological foes when it is due is an area where the Right could learn from the Left's behavior of the past few months.

Even the most left-wing newspaper columnists have not hesitated to praise their bête noire, Sharon, for his declaration of a unilateral cease-fire or his restraint after the Dolphinarium disco attack.

Peres deserves no less from the Right. And this is the more true because, as with Sharon's restraint, Peres' contributions to Israel's cause have entailed a heavy personal cost: His continued presence in the government and public support for Sharon's policies have subjected him to non-stop abuse from his erstwhile disciples on the Left.

The day might still come when Peres, the unity government, or both will turn into liabilities. For the last few months, however, they have been enormous assets and for his role in this, what Peres deserves from the Right is respect, not recriminations.