IF THE life of Shimon Peres was a play, it would be difficult to classify. A tragedy? A comedy? A tragicomedy?
For 60 years it looked as if he was under a curse of the Gods, much like the curse of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill, and every time he approached his goal the rock would roll down again to the bottom.
Disclosure: our lives have run somehow on parallel lines. He is one month older than I. We both came to Palestine as boys. We have both been in political life from our teens. But there the similarity ends.
We met for the first time 60 years ago, when we were 30 years old. He was the Director General of Israel's most important ministry, I was the publisher and editor of Israel's most aggressive news magazine. We disliked each other on sight.
He was David Ben-Gurion's main assistant, I was Ben-Gurion's main enemy (so defined by his security chief.) From there our paths crossed many times, but we did not become bosom friends.
ALREADY IN his early childhood in Poland, Peres (still Persky) complained that his mates in (Jewish) school beat him up for no reason. His younger brother had to defend him.
When he came to Palestine with his family, he was sent to the legendary children's village Ben Shemen, and joined a kibbutz. But already as a teenager his political acumen was evident. He was an instructor in a socialist youth movement. It split and most of his comrades joined the left-wing faction, which looked more young and dynamic. Peres was one of the few who remained with the ruling party, Mapai, and thereby drew the attention of the senior leaders.
He had to make a much more momentous choice in the 1948 war, a war all of us considered a life-and-death struggle. It was the decisive event in the life of our generation. Almost all the young people hastened to join the fighting units. Not Peres. Ben-Gurion sent him abroad to buy arms -- a very important task, but one that could have been carried out by an older person. Peres was considered a shirker at the supreme test and was never forgiven by the 1948ers. Their contempt plagued him for decades.
At the early age of 30 Ben-Gurion appointed him director of the Defense Ministry -- a huge advancement, which assured him a rapid rise to the top. And indeed, he played a major role in pushing Ben-Gurion into the 1956 Suez war, in collusion with France and Britain.
The French were struggling with the Algerian war for independence and believed that their real enemy was the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser. They got Israel to spearhead an attack to topple him. It was a complete failure.
In my opinion, the war was a political disaster for Israel. It dug the abyss separating our new state from the Arab world. But the French showed their gratitude -- they rewarded Peres with the atomic reactor in Dimona.
Throughout this period, Peres was the ultimate hawk, and a central member of a group which my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, branded as "Ben-Gurion's youth gang" -- a group we suspected of plotting to assume power by undemocratic means. But before this could happen, Ben-Gurion was kicked out by the old party veterans, and Peres had no choice but to join him in political exile. They formed a new party, Rafi, Peres worked like mad, but in the end they garnered only 10 Knesset seats. Peres and the boulder were back at the bottom.
Redemption came with the Six-day War. On its eve, Rafi was invited to join a National Unity government. But the big prize was snatched by Moshe Dayan, who became Minister of Defense and a world idol. Peres remained in the shadows.
The next opportunity arose after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Golda Meir and Dayan were pushed out by an incensed public. Peres was the obvious candidate for Prime Minister. But lo and behold, at the last minute Yitzhak Rabin appeared from nowhere and snatched the crown. Peres was left with the Defense Ministry.
The next three years were a continuous story of subversion, with Peres trying by all available means to undermine Rabin. As a part of this effort, he allowed right-wing extremists to establish the first settlement in the heart of the West Bank -- Kedumim. He has rightly been called the father of the settlement movement, as he was earlier called the father of the atom bomb.
Rabin coined a phrase that stuck to him: "Tireless Backstabber."