Despite the congratulatory telegrams, the celebratory glasses of cognac and the handshakes, Shimon Peres says he didn’t really feel the mantle of power descend upon him until he dropped into a chair that virtually no one had used in 20 years—that of his old mentor, David Ben-Gurion.
“It was uncanny,” Israel’s new Prime Minister says. “Nothing had excited me—the huge cars, the entourage, the bodyguards, the policemen jumping to attention, all meant nothing to me…till I came to the old man’s office.” Ben-Gurion, revered founder of Israel, had governed from a small office in Tel Aviv after being elected as the country’s first premier in 1948. When the Knesset (parliament) moved to Jerusalem in 1949, Ben-Gurion’s office was left to gather dust until Peres reclaimed it last month for occasional use.
Unlike Labor strongman Ben-Gurion, who nearly always enjoyed a clear majority, Peres, 61, is presiding over the most fragile coalition government in Israel’s short history. Under a job-sharing deal tortuously negotiated with his arch-rival Yitzhak Shamir, head of the right-wing Likud bloc, Peres will rule as premier for 25 months before yielding the office to Shamir for an equal period. On his visit to the U.S. this week, Peres must convince American diplomats and legislators that the pact, founded on mutual suspicion and a virtual dead heat at the polls, will hold up. And he must persuade them that he’s the man with the plan to tackle the towering problems Israel faces: more than 400 percent inflation, an army bogged down in Southern Lebanon and Jewish terrorism against Arabs in Israel. The crisis is overwhelming. Yet some American observers believe that despite his lack of charisma in public, Peres has the character and intellectual range to emerge as an outstanding premier. “He’s charming, articulate—a man of wit and breadth,” says former U.S. Mideast negotiator Sol Linowitz. “Those qualities should make him a fine leader.”
Peres has the versatility to sustain a bookish life of the mind while simultaneously handling practical matters of state. He will satisfy both instincts during a two-night stopover in New York. The first evening will be devoted to an informal conference with experts in the high technology industries he wants Israel to acquire. The second evening he plans to spend with writers Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller and Bernard Malamud. Over the last seven years, even as he traveled a million miles in a country only 260 miles long, Peres always found time to spend the early hours of the morning reading poetry and philosophy. “When I read, I escape the world,” he says. “I appoint myself producer, director and actor in my mind.” Though described as a lackluster campaigner, the private man is witty and urbane. A former French prime minister, the late Pierre Mendès-France, once voted him “the one man, aside from Henry Kissinger, I’d agree to go to a desert island with.”
In Washington, Peres may encounter isolation of another kind. There he expects to confront Congressional hostility to any new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and that will mean treading a fine line with his cabinet back home. While Peres is personally opposed to the building of further settlements, the Likud faction of the government opposes him strongly on the issue. The Israeli economy is another touchy subject. Peres’ first words in office were, “Let’s start—get me the Minister of Finance.” And he has taken decisive action, devaluing the shekel and announcing plans to cut a billion dollars out of the national budget. But Washington may be cool to his expected request for an advance against future foreign aid allocations. Says a State Department source: “The U.S. is not committing to anything until the Israelis come up with a specific belt-tightening plan.”
The task of devising the strategy to put Israel back on its feet will fall to a clutch of brilliant young assistants already recruited by Peres. Following the dictum that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and remembering his own days as the 25-year-old head of the Israeli Navy, he’s hired a staff of academics in their 20s and 30s. They will find that Peres sets a blistering work pace. Eighteen-hour days and lunches at the desk are now routine in the Prime Minister’s office. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” marvels an office security guard. “Even at the height of the Lebanon war everybody went home in the early afternoon. Now the lights are on till midnight and he’s back before 8 a.m. I guess we’ll have to get used to it.”
Peres is more than a hearty bureaucrat. He’s credited as the brains and the political motivator behind the Entebbe rescue raid in 1976, when then-PM Yitzhak Rabin was ready to trade prisoners for the 110 hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists in Uganda. He supervised the building of Israel’s aircraft industry, which now produces jets of such quality that last August it leased a squadron of Kfir fighters to the U.S. And he created the Israeli nuclear power industry, which intelligence analysts say gave Israel the capacity to build the bomb.
The son of a lumber merchant in Poland, Peres was a dreamy child, writing metaphysical poetry when he wasn’t studying the Talmud. When the family emigrated to Palestine in 1934, Peres expanded his eclectic taste in literature. He wooed his wife, Sonia, by reading Karl Marx to her in the moonlight in their kibbutz’s watermelon field. He was 15 when he took the oath on the gun and Bible to enter the Haganah, the underground Jewish army fighting to expel the British from Palestine. Shortly afterward he began his political career by pushing the national youth movement to endorse Ben-Gurion.
With Ben-Gurion’s death in 1973, Israel lost a national hero and Peres his lifelong role model. In succeeding to the founder’s office and occupying his chair, Peres could not have expected better of destiny.