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.

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.

Perhaps the most difficult task Peres now faces is to convince voters that it was his leadership and party that made the government's successes possible. Peres's high public-opinion rating has not been matched by a surge of popularity for the Labor Party. Polls also show that the vast majority of Israelis favor the unity government and rotation of the premiership.

``Two years ago, Shimon Peres was a burden on the Labor Party,'' observes a Labor Party leader and Peres aide. ``Now the Labor Party is a burden on Shimon Peres.''

``Peres is a victim of his own success,'' complains another aide. ``Now all the Likud has to do is sit back and reap the benefits.''

Indeed, Likud leaders seem well aware of the advantages they face in controlling the premiership for the next two years.

``Continuity will be the key word,'' says Likud's Ehud Olmert, a senior Knesset member. ``We will continue the policies followed in the government's first two years.''

Mr. Olmert also has words of praise for Peres, who he says has shown ``personal integrity'' in implementing the rotation agreement.

Such praise from a Likudnik contrasts sharply with the darts thrown during the bitter election campaigns of 1977 and 1981. Then, Peres was accused of everything from having an Arab mother to having made a fortune in the stock market. No allegations were ever proved, but the charges seemed to stick to him. His advisers recall with shudders Peres's appearances at towns where crowds jeered at him and pelted him with garbage as he tried to speak.

Those images have been methodically erased and carefully replaced in the past two years with images of Peres being warmly greeted in the development towns he has visited one day each week throughout his term. Other favorable images are his recent meetings in Morocco with King Hassan II, and in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak.

A team of media specialists, including an American campaign consultant and an Israeli consultant, are credited with constructing a sophisticated media campaign to eliminate the Labor Party leader's image as a politician who could neither lead nor be trusted. They have built instead one of a leader who transcends party politics.

``We constantly hammered home the image of Peres the statesman, of Peres the man who worked constantly for the good of the nation, of Peres who is reliable,'' says media adviser Uri Savir.

It will be difficult, some Peres aides acknowledge, for their boss to retain his popularity in the coming months as he works to remind the public of the differences between himself and Shamir, between Labor and Likud. The statesman image will necessarily have to suffer.

During his trip to the United States last month, Peres seemed already to slip back into the role of politician from the heights of statesmanship by deriding the Likud's criticism of his summit with Mr. Mubarak.

``I don't give a damn what the Likud ministers say,'' Peres told a reporter. ``I said I was going to do A, B, C, D, and E when I got into office and I did it. Did the Likud get Israel out of Lebanon or repair the economy? All the gentlemen who are now criticizing the idea of an international peace conference were against the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt. What credibility do they have to provide advice to a nation?''

When asked if he regretted going to the Foreign Ministry, Peres replied in his characteristically optimistic way.

``Not at all,'' he said, smiling. ``Now I can concentrate on the issues I am really interested in. First I will take a week off because I have been very busy for these two years. And then I will get back to work.''

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