The low-slung clubhouse behind the horse stables at this kibbutz in the northern Yizreel Valley felt a little like a time capsule from the Israel of 30 years ago. The pine-paneled walls were crammed with photos of political icons, living and dead, who have visited the collective farm. Members of the audience looked like old-style pioneers in their sandals, shorts, open shirts and sunbaked skin. And their guest speaker Friday afternoon completed the picture.
Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres is 81, and his political resume is as long and colorful as the state's history. He has been prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and finance minister. Once the right-hand man of founding father David Ben-Gurion, Peres built Israel's defense establishment in the 1950s and '60s, helped launch the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the '70s, oversaw the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians (for which he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat), and has backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his old friend and longtime political rival, in the landmark settler withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
He has also failed to win four elections for prime minister and been blamed, rightly or not, for dividing the Israeli left and helping Sharon to stay in power.
Peres did not come here to reminisce about past glories or debacles, however, but to ask for support. Despite his age, he's decided to run again to lead the Labor Party and compete for prime minister in the country's next national election, expected to take place next year.
Depending on Israelis' points of view -- and both were well represented in the audience Friday -- it's an act of great political statesmanship or one of unbridled personal ambition. Either way, Peres's candidacy, and his current role in Sharon's government of national unity, explains a lot about what's happened to politics and the peace process here and why Israelis feel so uneasy as the clock ticks down toward the Aug. 15 Gaza evacuation.
Peres's case for joining the government is simple: "Without us, there wouldn't have been disengagement from Gaza," he said in an interview before the meeting at the kibbutz. "What we did is create a majority for peace, and I feel it was the right thing to do. I'm not apologizing for it."
There was a time when Israel was dominated by two major political blocs, led by Peres's Labor Party and Sharon's Likud, defined not by standard ideological divides of left vs. right but rather by their approach to the Middle East peace process. But over the years, the old lines have blurred, and the blocs have become factionalized and dysfunctional. The more dovish Labor has lost two consecutive elections by landslides. Meanwhile, one faction of Likud has endorsed the concept of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, while another considers it tantamount to treason. A new generation of politicians has failed so far to capture public confidence.
As a result, many have turned to the old lions for answers. For Likud, this meant the triumph of Sharon, who is 77. And for Labor, it has meant a revival of support for Peres, who will be 82 in August. Polls last weekend indicate he is slightly ahead in a field of five contenders for the party's leadership post.
But the endurance of the old lions has not allayed Israeli anxieties surrounding the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Recent opinion surveys suggest support for the plan, which once topped 70 percent, is down to just 50 percent. Many fear that withdrawal will simply embolden Palestinian radicals, causing them to renew attacks against Israelis in hopes of winning a similar pullout in the West Bank. The recently retired army chief of staff expressed such fears when he left office two weeks ago, declaring that Israel would remain "a society of struggle" for generations to come.
Nonsense, contends Peres. He says war is no more inevitable than peace. He also contends that getting out of Gaza offers the best hope of strengthening Palestinian moderates such as Mahmoud Abbas, the new president of the Palestinian Authority, and reviving the peace process. "The polls are just a mood," he insisted when asked about the disengagement. "When it is over, people will forget it."
Many in the peace camp argue that Peres's continuing dominance is strangling a younger generation of potential leaders. "He is the most beautiful pine tree in the forest -- the tallest, the widest, with the greenest view -- but nothing can grow in the acid of its roots," said one of Peres's former lieutenants, Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the parliament, the Knesset, whose bid for party leadership fell short four years ago.
More importantly, Burg contended, Peres has damaged the party by taking it into coalition with Sharon: "He has suffocated the Labor Party and helped kill the alternative to Sharon." For those in the peace camp, Burg said, "it's now either Sharon or despair."
Peres rejects this criticism. Opposition for its own sake is worthless, he contends. "In politics it's not enough to have good ideas," said Peres, whose fondness for aphorisms is legendary. "You have to create a majority of support, because a good idea without support is just a poem."
Peres's trademark pompadour is a bit thinner and grayer than in the days when he jetted around Europe and the United States conjuring visions of "The New Middle East" and extolling Arafat, the late Palestinian leader. But he looked fit and sounded feisty at the gathering here, a weekly event in which kibbutzniks from all over northern Israel come to debate politics and peace.
He laid out for them his core case -- Israel has been spending billions to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza when that money should have been earmarked for developing the economies of the Galilee region in the north and Negev desert in the south. The continuing population surge among Palestinians -- "a demographic time bomb," Peres calls it -- means the country must inevitably accept partition into two states or else risk a Palestinian majority that would mean an end to Israel's identity as a Jewish nation.
When one woman in the audience asked why Israel shouldn't continue to rule Gaza, he grew angry, slapping the table with his hand. "Gaza is the summit of stupidity," he told her. "There are 8,000 Jews living among 1.5 million Arabs, and they're taking 20 percent of the land and 15 percent of the water and the state of Israel is spending billions. Who wants a Jewish ghetto in Gaza?"
When a man chided him for changing his views over the years, Peres said he had been consistent, while the Likud and Sharon had been forced to accept demographic and political realities. "Why did Sharon change his mind?" Peres asked. "Because he's stupid? No, because there is no alternative."
After it was over, the event's organizer, Tsvika Levy, said Peres had done well. But Levy did not plan to support him. "He's very intelligent, and he is a leader," Levy said. "But he ought to sit down, write a book and give his place to a younger generation."
Earlier, Peres had rejected this argument. Younger leaders had failed to retain public support. Peres said he was surprised he remained popular "because I committed every mistake I could."
But, he said, voters understood that whatever he did, "I did it out of convictions and I kept my flag known. And I don't feel any need to apologize -- or to go away."
Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.