Will Peres Challenge Bibi for Israel's Top Political Post?

Elder Statesman Shimon Peres is being recruited to head a coalition that could challenge the dominance of the Israeli right.

Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP / Getty Images

Members of Israel’s peace camp are trying to recruit elder statesman Shimon Peres to head a would-be alliance of center-left parties that would try to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming parliamentary elections, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The move would require Peres, who is 89, to resign his figurehead post as Israel’s president well before his term expires in 2014.

The sources, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that Peres has so far rebuffed approaches but had not ruled out the idea completely.

In response to a reporter’s question in Moscow this week, where he was on an official visit, Peres played down the reports.

“I've enjoyed serving my country as president for the last five years and will continue to do so," he said.

The endeavor marks an effort by opposition factions to match the union announced last month on the right between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party. Polls show their alliance would garner 45 seats in the 120-member Parliament, a result that would almost certainly guarantee Netanyahu another term as prime minister.

While other attempts have been made to unite the parties and political figures of the center-left, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the efforts were thwarted by what one of the sources described as “outsized egos.”

Olmert and Livni, who are both out of politics but enjoy name recognition in Israel, have discussed forming a new party to run on the January 22 ballot. But neither is willing to cede the top spot to the other, according to the sources. They said Livni has polls showing the party would fare better with her as leader.

A decision to run separately would further fracture the opposition, which now includes Labor, Kadima, and the left-wing Meretz Party.

Sources said that Livni would be willing to serve under Peres and had been encouraging him to return to the political arena. They said Olmert and Livni would decide whether to enter the race in the coming week.

Spokesmen for both Olmert and Livni could not be reached for comment.

Peres has been in politics almost since Israel’s establishment. He served twice as prime minister, first in the 1980s and then briefly in the 1990s after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Peres was an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords and remains an ardent proponent of the two-state solution with the Palestinians.

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His popularity has surged in recent years. A poll commissioned by Haaretz in March ranking Israel’s top 16 public figures put Peres in first place, with an approval rating of 81 percent. Netanyahu took 11th place in the poll, with a 53 percent approval rating. Livni came in last, with 31 percent support.

But Peres has always fared better in polls than in elections. He lost a string of them in ‘80s and ‘90s, including one to Netanyahu in 1996 by less than a percentage point.

Yossi Belin, a former politician with close ties to Peres, said he doubted anything would come of the recruiting efforts.

“Peres understands that his popularity is a direct result of the fact that he became noncontroversial in the last five years,” Beilin told The Daily Beast.

“So for him it’s a kind of a poetic justice in his last stage of life to be the leader of the consensus and elder of the tribe. He also knows that if he takes this step, all the controversy will come back ... I don’t believe there’s a chance it will happen.”

Beilin said Peres, who published a book earlier this year about Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, would undoubtedly recall what happened to him when he returned to politics in 1969 after a period of retirement. Ben-Gurion had led the largest party in Israel’s parliament during the country's early years, but he could only muster four seats in the 1969 parliamentary election.On the other hand, Peres has been quietly critical of Netanyahu for being unready to make the deep compromises required for peace with the Palestinians.In an interview with Newsweek earlier this year, Peres said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a genuine partner for peace and the opportunity to clinch a deal with him should not be squandered.