I was reading a newspaper report about the latest poll. People were asked to evaluate the nation's leaders.
It appears that the President of the State, Shimon Peres, is by far the most popular leader in Israel. 72% of those polled approve of him, only 20% disapprove. The runners-up were far behind: 60% for the Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, the same for the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, and 57% for the aggressive State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss. The President of the Supreme Court, Dorit Beinish, was already under the 50% approval rate: she got 49%, followed by Tzipi Livni with 48%.
The three champions of unpopularity were the three most powerful politicians in the country, the men who are shaping our future: Binyamin Netanyahu (38% approve, 53% disapprove), Avigdor Lieberman (40% approve, 52% disapprove) and Ehud Barak (30% approve, 63% disapprove!)
So why did I laugh?
HISTORY HAS a lot of humor. It is easier to imagine it directed by the willful and spiteful gods of Mount Olympus than by the austere god of the Jews, who resides above the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Humor has never been his strong point.
Yet here is Shimon Peres, the most popular person in Israel. How absolutely hilarious! Because in all his long life (he is two weeks older than I) he has never won an election. (Knesset members are not elected personally, but as members of a party list.)
He has been a politician since the age of 20 and has never been anything else. In a democratic country, the business of a politician is to get elected and then reelected. Yet Peres never was. In dozens of election campaigns -- Knesset elections and party primary elections -- he has never won. (He has never won a majority in an election as party leader, and failed to be elected in other cases where he was standing as an individual candidate.) The voters just could not bring themselves to vote for him.
(He once flung a rhetorical question at a party audience: "Am I a loser?" The reply was a thunderous: "Y E S !")
Even his present job he got by a fluke. The President of the State is elected by the Knesset in secret ballot. When Peres ran for president the first time, the Knesset rejected him, preferring a mediocre, run-of-the-mill party hack called Moshe Katzav. That was the ultimate humiliation. Only when Katzav was uncovered as a serial women-molester and had to resign, was Peres elected by a remorseful Knesset. The members seem to have said to themselves: enough is enough. We can't go on torturing this man, who has -- after all -- been a member of the Knesset for some 45 years.
And now this man -- whom almost everybody loved to hate -- has become the most beloved leader in the country, as well as a respected Elder Statesman throughout the world. Weird.
I MET him for the first time in 1953. I was the owner/editor of a popular news magazine, he was the newly appointed Director General of the Ministry of Defense, an immensely powerful position because the minister was David Ben-Gurion. Peres became his main assistant.
He had invited me to a meeting about some trivial matter. It was not a case of love at first sight. As a matter of fact, we disliked each other from the first moment.
There was not just a lack of chemistry. There was a very concrete reason why many people of my -- and his -- age-group detested him: he did not serve in the army in the 1948 war. That was almost incredible: when the fighting broke out, all of us had rushed to the colors, our entire generation was ravished by the war, I myself was seriously wounded. Yet here was a young man who had missed these momentous events.
To be fair, Peres did not idle during the war. Ben-Gurion sent him abroad to procure arms, which we needed desperately. But that could have been done by an older person, rather than an able-bodied young man of 25. It was a stigma that clung to him for decades, as long as the war generation was setting the tone in our new state. It helps to explain, by the way, why he lost out several times to Yitzhak Rabin, an authentic combat commander, loved and respected by almost everybody.
Yet, though there were always good reasons for not liking him, it seems that the aversion to him was basically irrational. He himself once complained that as a boy, when he was coming home from (Jewish) school in his Polish home town, the other (Jewish) boys used to beat him up for no reason at all, and his younger brother had to rush to his defense. "Why do they hate me?" he queried his mother plaintively.