Truce Could Falter, but Now Peres Is a Winner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

However fragile, the cease-fire that Israel and the Palestinians have reluctantly accepted offers political vindication for Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

For the last three months of the violence that has raged in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Peres has endured the slings and arrows of both right-wing settlers and the Israeli left.

Settlers have accused the Labor Party elder statesman of being behind the policy of restraint that has kept Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from dealing a knockout blow to the Palestinian Authority. The left has branded Peres a sellout for joining a government dominated by the right-wing Likud Party, one that scorns the Oslo peace process he fashioned with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"He is really providing a fig leaf for the government," said Galia Golan, a longtime leader of Peace Now, which has held two protests outside Peres' home. "His presence in the Cabinet cripples a good part of the Labor Party and does damage abroad, where he runs around defending Sharon's policies."

Peres rejected the criticism in an interview published Friday in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv.

"I ask myself what would have happened if [Labor] were not a member of this government," Peres said. "Would a government without us as partners have accepted the Mitchell report? Would a government without us have frozen the settlements or displayed restraint after the brutal [Tel Aviv disco] attack? . . . There was full justification in our joining the government."

Indeed, the assessment of Peres as Sharon's lap dog began to change when the government accepted a blueprint for achieving a cease-fire and finding a way back to the negotiating table. Sharon's initial impulse was to reject the plan, developed by an international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). Peres was credited with convincing Sharon that Israel had more to gain by accepting it.

The foreign minister also helped persuade Sharon to accept a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements, although it is still unclear whether what Israel agreed to jibes with the Mitchell report's call for a total freeze.

And it was Peres, again, who was credited with having convinced Sharon that Israel would gain international support if it did not immediately retaliate after a suicide bomber killed himself and 20 other people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub June 1. Israel's restraint enabled the Bush administration to negotiate a truce between the two sides last week.

Both Israelis and Palestinians see the timeout as the last hope of averting a massive escalation in the fighting that could possibly spill over into a regional war.

Now even some Palestinians are having second thoughts about Peres, who they feared had turned his back on peace when he teamed up with a man they regard as a war criminal because of his hard-line approach during his career as an army commander.

"At the beginning, he looked like the wrapping on the Sharon package, like an apologist for Sharon, and his presence in the government played havoc with the peace camp," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet member and senior peace negotiator who has worked closely with Peres for years.

But under pressure from his party, Shaath said, Peres "assured his colleagues that there will be a real settlement freeze or he will be out of the government."

Shaath credits Peres with helping restrain Sharon from retaliating militarily against the Palestinians after the Tel Aviv suicide bombing.

"He sold this restraint to Sharon. He convinced him that 'if you hit them, you will lose the chance' "to win a cease-fire, Shaath said.

Uzi Baram, a Labor dove, quit the Knesset, Israel's parliament, after it became clear that Peres would lead the party into Sharon's government in March. Now, he says, he has revised his opinion of the partnership.

"A few weeks ago, I wasn't so happy about the romance between Sharon and Peres," Baram said. "Now, I am unsure about everything. I think maybe he had some beneficial influence in getting this cease-fire and in keeping the settlers from pressuring Sharon."

Political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, one of the founders of Peace Now, said he thinks his colleagues on the left are wrong to attack Peres for participating in Sharon's government. The situation is so explosive, he said, that "preventing a general war is a great achievement under the circumstances."

"Every day that passes" without further escalation, Ezrahi said, "is a spectacular achievement for both Sharon and Peres."

But some of Peres' longtime associates, including Yossi Beilin, his former aide and the man who helped him construct the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, cannot forgive the partnership with Sharon.

"For Peres to join the Sharon government was a mistake," Beilin told the newspaper Haaretz. Sitting in government with far-right Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who has advocated the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, "is a sin, a moral sin," he said.

"I understand that he [Peres] believes he is the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike to prevent a flood, and I love him very much and I don't for a second doubt that his intentions are pure," Beilin said.

But by participating in the government, he said, Peres is "legitimizing Jewish racism. It was wrong of Peres to do that."

A man who has spent his entire life at or near the center of power, Peres, 77, has always stirred strong emotions. He wears the label of the perennial loser, the man who led Labor to a series of crushing defeats in his many failed attempts to be elected prime minister.

Since the peace process collapsed last fall in a spasm of violence that has claimed hundreds of lives, some right-wing activists have called for Peres and other architects of the 1993 Oslo accords to be put on trial for leading Israel into a partnership with the Palestinians. Many on the right fret that Peres has somehow changed Sharon, tamed him and persuaded him to ignore his instincts in the battle with the Palestinians.

But Sharon himself has nothing but praise for his foreign minister. Unlike slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who branded Peres an "inveterate schemer" in his autobiography, and failed Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who shoved Peres to the sidelines, Sharon has made Peres the key player in the Cabinet. Aides to both men say they speak several times a day and consult on every diplomatic and military move.

"Between the two of them, they have about 100 years of political and military experience," a senior Sharon aide said. "And the guiding light for both of them is David Ben Gurion, whom both of them served."

Both men, the aide said, believe in the pragmatism of Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. And that, he said, has enabled Sharon, who dreamed of annexing the West Bank and making Jordan the Palestinian state, and Peres, who dreamed of the New Middle East, a region of open borders and high-tech harmony, to work together.

"Up to this moment, the work has been very easy," Peres told Maariv. "I assume that in the future, there may be disagreements, especially the deeper we go into the issues at stake, but the fact is that we can argue and eventually reach a decision."

Two days after that interview was published, during Sunday's regular Cabinet meeting, Peres and Sharon clashed for the first time in front of other ministers, over Peres' desire to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Sharon's refusal to let him. Peres objected to news reports that Sharon had "ordered" him not to meet with Arafat.

"I cannot allow myself to sit in a unity government in which the decisions are made unilaterally," Peres was quoted in the Israeli press as telling Sharon. "The unity government is two opinions. I do not accept directions from anyone. I am not willing to have you tell me what I am for and what I am against--I am not in this government to implement your policies."

The flare-up was widely reported in the Israeli media as a possible sign that the coalition government was beginning to crack--a theory denied by both Peres' and Sharon's staffs. The two leaders met for dinner that night and reportedly smoothed over their differences.

But there is much speculation on how long the partnership can continue. Many political observers believe that the deep ideological rift between the two men will resurface if they actually succeed in halting the violence and bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

"When there will be real policy differences, no spin by their staffs about how well they work together will help," said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "Who knows whether the current armistice will hold and where we go from here if it does not. It can unravel in ways we cannot foresee. Some ways may pull Sharon and Peres together, and some may cause them to be at loggerheads."

Peres' ultimate leverage in this right-wing-dominated government is the threat to resign "noisily and publicly," Ezrahi said, if the government takes steps he can't live with.

"For Sharon, Peres is simply indispensable," Ezrahi said. "To the world, Peres is still the Nobel Peace Prize winner, still the moderate, still the soft-spoken leader. Without him, Sharon loses vital assets internationally and domestically. Without Peres, people will start thinking again about Sharon's past."

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