From David Ben-Gurion, whose influence on Israel as its first prime minister was over-whelming, Shimon Peres learned as a young Defense Ministry official three decades ago a lesson that has stayed with him: "What is important is what you do and not what you say."
Sitting in his almost Spartan office in Israel's cavernous parliament building, Peres, the man most likely to head a Labor government should that party win elections next year, seemed to reach back to that lesson as he talked about style and substance of leadership.
"In the Middle East, don't be impressed by rhetoric but by actions," he advised at one point in a conversation about King Hussein of Jordan.
Later, discussing former foreign minister Moshe Dayan, Peres' heavy eyelids drooped, and he said, "You know, to keep track of all these quotations you must either be an historian or an unemployed person. So many people say so many things, and what does it mean?"
According to every public opinion poll taken, Peres' Labor Party can be expected to win a lopsided victory when Prime Minister Menachem Begin's five-year mandate expires in October 1981 and Israelis elect 120 members of the parliament. Many political observer's believe that Labor will be able to form the first majority government -- without coalition partners -- in Israel's 32-year existence.
Although he faces a likely challenge by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres appears comfortably assumed to run at the top of the Labor Party ticket. If he does, in all likelihood he will become prime minister at a crucial time.
The question on the minds of many Israelis today -- and Americans whose concerns are intertwined with Israel's -- is what would change under a Labor government if Begin's rightist Likud coalition is defeated next year or succumbs before then to loss of confidence in the parliament. In a far-reaching interview, Peres, 56, left little doubt that on certain key issues, the change would be as much in style as in substance.
"Opposing a Palestinian state in the West Bank in a matter of national consensus," Peres said. "The unity of Jerusalem is a matter of national consensus. The need for secure borders is a national consensus. The principle of settlements for security is a national consensus."
No Israeli leader, Peres stressed, could change direction on those issued and survive for long. But within those constraints, he added, is a wide latitude for style -- and a gulf separates his style from Begin's.
Where Begin has focused his settlement policy on Israel's biblical claim to all of Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Peres would base his on the security needs of a fragile state surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors.
"Labor surely would emphasize the security considerations rather than just the historical rights," he said. "We would surely change the settlement policy and avoid settling in populated Arab areas, but I don't see any need for dismantling settlements" already established.
He adds, "as there are Arab settlements under non-Arab sovereignty [in Israel], so on principle there can be Jewish settlements, under non-Jewish sovereignty. You don't neet to dismantle any settlements."
Peres sought to draw a fine distinction between "having settlements," in the West Bank, and pursuing "the settlement of the region." But he refused to be drawn into a discussion of which of the 65 settlements in the West Bank were improperly placed by the Likud government.
"I see no sense in drawing maps in an interview," he said. "It's counter-productive. The principle of the settlements is a national consensus, but the map is not. That settlements are needed for security, there's no doubt about it. We differ on the map, because we would not like to settle in large Arab communities against their wishes."
Palestinians in the West Bank who remember the previous Labor government say Begin builds settlements loudly and Labor builds them quietly. But Peres insisted there was more difference.
"Even without foreign pressure, we would consider it a great mistake to incorporate settlements in such heavily populated Arab areas. It does nobody any good," he said.
Another major thrust of a Labor Party government, Peres said, would be to resuscitate the "Jordanian option" and seek to entice Hussein into a solution of the palestinian problem.
Peres seemed unimpressed by Hussein's persistent refusal to negotiate with Israel until it withdraws from land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, saying, "When you listen to his speeches and watch his deeds, there is a difference between the two."
The deeds, he said, are Hussein's support of U.N. Resolution 242, calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas but not mentioning a Palestinian state, and Jordan's growing involvement in day-to-day West Bank affairs.
"It is Hussein who issued Jordanian passports to West Bank residents, and who pays the salaries of West Bank officials, and who watches closely every event there. They are his citizens. I don't expect he would indicate anything publicly before he acted. cBut he is the man we should talk with," Peres said.
Peres said his vision of the Jordanian option does not necessarily involve the Allon Plan, a proposal by former foreign minister Yigael Allon calling for a territorial compromise, with Israel withdrawing from most of the West Bank of the Jordan River but maintaining security outposts along the Jordan Valley.
"The Allon Plan is just one of the options, but not the only one," he said. Since one may estimate that once we meet with Hussein he won't accept our map and we won't accept his map. Then we will have to satisfy ourselves with an interim agreement.
"The interim agreement can be of a different nature.It can be territorial. It can also be a shared government for a while over given areas. tI'll leave with, we start with Resolution 242, which he has accepted. So we already have an opening position."
Coupled with the Jordanian initiative, a Labor government would immediately seek to implement the dormant proposal by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to establish Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip before trying for an agreement on West Bank autonomy.
Contradicting Sadat, Begin has said he never agreed in last spring's summit in Aswan to launch Gaza autonomy before a comprehensive peace agreement was reached for both occupied areas.
Starting first with the Gaza Strip is natural, Peres said, because of the traditional Egyptian influence there, and because seemingly insoluble issues like the status of East Jerusalem are not as important to Gazans.
"Gaza really is objectively in a different position. Why haven't we started autonomy there?" Peres asked.
On the question of the unity of Jerusalem, and the Knesset bill to perpetuate its status as Israel's capital, Peres said he opposed the bill as unnecessary and an irritant to Sadat. But he voted for anyway.
"We cannot permit ourselves to create in the public opinion abroad or at home any thought that our position is unclear. So, even though we don't like the law, we can't compromise our position. We can't sacrifice strategy for tactics," Peres said.
The labor Party leader conceded that beyond the formidable foreign policy questions, a new Labor government would face enormous economic problems, including 150 percent annual inflation, a poor balance of trade situation and a strained national budget from which 40 percent already goes to defense and 30 percent goes to debt service.
Peres tended to talk in generalities about his party's economic plans, proposing vaguely to discourage imports and encourage exports, and reviving the traditional Labor Party promises to spread the burden of taxation more evenly. He said he would impose wage and price controls.
But the capstone of his party's economic plan, Peres said, would be to shift the emphasis from agriculture and defense industry to science-based industry, with production of sophisticated products developed by Israeli technology.
While research-and-development industry already has made impressive strides, Peres said, "we have to get the right companies to develop the right products for export. When we do that, we can achieve a greater degree of economic independence.