Peres to step down, not aside. Israeli leader, buoyed by high ratings, plans active new role
Shimon Peres is stepping down as Israel's prime minister this week with the characteristic caution and style that marked his 25 months in power. Barring any last-minute hitches, Mr. Peres will resign as prime minister tomorrow. He will then become foreign minister -- trading posts with Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the rival Likud bloc. Likud and its allies form one half of Israel's coalition government.Skip to next paragraph
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When Mr. Shamir assumes the premiership on Tuesday, he and Peres will complete a swap of power that is unique in Israeli politics. Two years ago, few analysts here believed such a swap would be possible.
For Peres, handing over the premiership is both a painful act and a source of pride. He spent the last two years rehabilitating his image in the eyes of Israel's voting public, which had come to regard him as untrustworthy and incapable of leading as he guided the Labor Party through seven years in opposition and two electoral defeats. Peres leaves office with the satisfaction of knowing he now has a 77 percent approval rating in public opinion polls.
A man who strove all of his political life to become prime minister, Peres relished his time in office. He worked long hours, putting in appearances at the most obscure towns, traveling abroad frequently, and generally wearing out his much younger staff. He took no vacations.
``Israelis do not like to see their prime minister vactioning,'' he once laughingly told this reporter. ``They like to see him working.''
A Likud leader who dined with Peres this week described him as ``very proud of his accomplishments and a little sad that it is ending.''
In recent weeks, Peres has quietly emphasized that he does not expect rotation to spell the end of his political career. In interviews he said that, as foreign minister, he will continue to pursue diplomatic initiatives. He plans to constantly push the Likud half of the government to seek negotiations with Jordan over the fate of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It is over the future of the occupied territories that the two largest parties are most clearly divided. Labor has indicated that it favors territorial compromise with Jordan, while the Likud maintains that Israel should not withdraw from any of the territory that it now occupies.
Peres remains convinced, his closest aides say, that an offer of negotiations from Jordan's King Hussein may be the only issue that could cause an early collapse of the Likud-Labor government. He believes it might break the stalemate of the 1984 elections that resulted when neither the Likud nor Labor won enough seats to form a government. They were forced into an uneasy alliance.
That Peres is seeking to position himself as best he can for the second half of this government's term seemed clear this week. In negotiations with Shamir on revamping their coalition agreement, Peres pushed for a role in economic planning. He used his farewell speech to the Knesset Tuesday to subtly contrast his record with that of the previous Likud government.
Speaking without emotion, Peres dwelt on the long list of the government's successes in the past two years. He credited it with extracting Israeli troops from Lebanon, improving relations with Egypt, bringing the economy back from the brink of collapse, and improving Israel's international standing.
``We launched a new era -- the era of an Israel that once more lives in stability and with hope . . . an era in which we no longer need to demonstrate our strength to the world by means of boastfulness and demonstrations, but by creating a network of open relations with the world around us,'' Peres said.