His opponent was a nonentity. The press had predicted victory. His political allies had counted more than enough votes for a win. All that was left was for Shimon Peres to wait out the official balloting in the Knesset for the largely ceremonial post of the nation's President, a position well-suited to the country's most senior statesman. But when the final tally came in last week, the result was written all over Peres' stricken face. Contrary to the general expectation, Israel's new head of state was not Peres but the underdog, Moshe Katsav, a decent guy by all accounts but a political lightweight.
Actually, the secret 63-57 vote should not have been such a shock. It was in keeping with Peres' long and inglorious electoral record. Though he is the most accomplished politician in Israel — and a seasoned world figure as well — Peres, 76, has not once managed to win outright an election for public office. In Israel's entire 52-year history Labor has lost at the polls only when Peres was its leader. The Likud's Katsav, Israel's eighth President, is the first from a party other than Labor.
Katsav, 55, who will take over from the ailing and disgraced Ezer Weizman, served as a cabinet minister in various governments but never rose above such second-tier posts as transportation and tourism. Peres, by contrast, has held every important job in government including Minister of Defense, Finance and Foreign Affairs and was Prime Minister three times.
Peres was the chief architect of Israel's military-industrial complex, including its nuclear weapons program, and a key driver behind the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, a role that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Peres' wit and elegance have made him a favorite among foreign dignitaries, but those qualities make little impression on Israeli voters, who prefer their politicians rough-cut and earthy. Early in his career, Peres gained a reputation as a self-promoter, an image reinforced by old party rival Yitzhak Rabin, who, reflecting on what he saw as sabotage by Peres during his first stint as Prime Minister, memorably dubbed his competitor a "tireless subverter."
At a Labor convention three years ago, Peres famously addressed the crowd: "They say I am a loser. Am I a loser?" His fellow party members thundered back, "YES!" Yet neither that nor other humiliations, including rejection for the presidency, motivated Peres to quit public life. Last week he revoked his resignation as Minister for Regional Development, tendered in anticipation of victory in the presidential vote, and vowed to continue working for peace. There was some speculation Barak might name him Foreign Minister after David Levy quit the post to protest the Prime Minister's peace policies. Peres said he would not seek the job. But perhaps he has simply learned by now that admitting he wanted it would spoil his chances of getting it.