Shimon Peres is the most popular prime minister in Israel's history -- but the Labor Party he heads isn't reaping the benefits. In two years, Mr. Peres's popularity has jumped from 4 percent to 76 percent, according to polls taken by his staff. Yet, the polls show, if elections were held today, Labor would not win enough seats in parliament to form a government on its own.
``A few years ago, they could not accept Peres at all,'' said Albert Benzaken as he watched fellow residents of this northern development town cheer the prime minister. ``Today, the children and old people really love him. . . . But I don't think that if there is an election the people of Hatsor will vote for Labor.''
Peres appears more relaxed, confident, and in control than at any other time in his political career, according to those who have long observed him. But his advisers say that the Labor Party has failed to remake itself with the same vigor Peres has applied to his own political rebirth.
``Today, the party is basing itself on the popularity of Peres,'' says Moshe Theumim, the public relations expert who, together with media adviser Uri Savir, is regarded as the mastermind of the Peres comeback. ``It is up to the leadership of this party to establish itself as the party of the people.''
The central problem facing Peres, Mr. Theumim says, is that the Labor Party that ruled Israel from 1948 until 1977 is still viewed with deep hostility by the vast majority of Sephardic Jews (those from Arab and African countries). Since he became premier in October 1984, Peres has actively wooed Sephardic Jews, who make up more than 50 percent of Israel's population and who vote heavily for the Likud and parties to the right of Likud.
Peres visits tiny, depressed development towns such as Hatsor, whose populations are almost entirely Sephardic, almost every Tuesday. The prime minister has added a Sephardi to his staff as an adviser on social welfare and has stressed in public speeches the need to battle unemployment in the development towns.
The fact that Peres's personal rehabilitation in public opinion has not extended to his party has virtually guaranteed that in five months Peres will hand over the premiership to Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir.
Labor Party leaders use words like ``disaster'' to describe what rotation will mean. They argue that it was the Likud that launched Israel's war in Lebanon in 1982 and brought an economic crisis and that only a Labor-led government would be capable of launching an active effort to make peace with Israel's eastern neighbors.
Labor strategists are most concerned that the gains made during the Peres regime will all be lost if Mr. Shamir serves as prime minister for two years, as the coalition agreement stipulates. Labor leaders fear that the Israeli public will forget about the ``new'' Peres after he has served in the relatively powerless post of foreign minister for two years and that elections in 1988 will produce, at best, a stalemate.
Theumim, speaking at the Labor Party convention last week, said he believed the party must move quickly to open its ranks to the Sephardim if it is to survive.
``The people who vote for Labor are people who have been in Israel more than 30 years,'' he said. ``They are mostly Ashkenazim [of Eastern European background], have a high level of education, and are 40 years old or older.'' That profile, he said, contrasts with the rising number of voters who are young, Sephardic, born in Israel, and have no more than a high school education.
``Labor still represents the bourgeois intelligentsia, and the right in Israel represents the blue-collar workers,'' Theumim said. ``What is needed in the party is a revolution and it is beginning to happen, but it should have happened a year ago. It is a very painful process the party is going through. The identification the Sephardim feel for the Likud is almost tribal. You do not leave one tribe, no matter how much you don't like its leaders, unless another tribe makes you feel welcome. The Labor Party still must prove to these people that it is willing to go in a new way.''
Theumim insists there is no ``new'' Peres, that his job in the last two years has simply been to show that Peres did not deserve his reputation. In taking on Peres as a client, Theumim says, ``the problem wasn't in building an image but destroying an image. For years, there was a campaign to destroy Peres's image.''
Some Labor members maintain, however, that it is what they claim to be Peres's obsession with his image that has produced a popularity rating the polls indicate would largely evaporate in an election campaign.