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PM turns meaningless proverbs into a fine art

My father once invented a game which involved thinking up entirely meaningless national proverbs. This is more difficult to do than it sounds. If there is any meaning at all you cannot score. He won it once with the fine old Norwegian saying: "The tree is taller than the highest wave."

It is a game that Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, would be good at, judging by some of his recent nuggets. Speaking of the next stage of talks with the Palestinians, he said: "It's better to have a partner without a plan than a plan without a partner." Asked about the purpose of Operation Grapes of Wrath - the Israeli intervention in Lebanon last month which killed 200 people - he explained: "The operation had motives, but not goals."

Some of his sayings are not exactly meaningless, but sound tired and contrived. On the future of the Middle East, Mr Peres said: "The youth in Syria and Iran will tell their leaders: 'you are busy with photo opportunities, but we want a life opportunity'. " The Prime Minister has even written a book called The New Middle East. Its main conclusion, says historian Ilan Pappe, "is that it's high time that Europe allowed Israel to join the European Union as a full member".

Journalists and politicians laughed just once as they watched the one- and-only television debate of the campaign between Mr Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu, the right-wing candidate, on closed-circuit television last Sunday .

Mr Netanyahu repeated endlessly that thanks to Mr Peres, Israelis live in fear. Inevitably, he was asked about his admission of adultery three years ago on television and his claim that political opponents were blackmailing him with a video showing him with his girlfriend.

"It hurt me, it hurt my wife, it hurt my family, it was a mistake," began Mr Netanyahu's pious reply, but then - just a shade too quickly to carry conviction - he added that the mistakes made by Mr Peres "hurt the whole people of Israel". Just for a moment, says columnist Nahum Barnea, the absurdity of the comparison between the failings of Mr Netanyahu's sex life and the errors in the Oslo accord "filled the room with non-partisan laughter".

If Mr Peres had called an election immediately after Rabin's assassination he would have won it. He will therefore be execrated by Labour if he loses today, the fifth time he will have led his party to defeat. A Labour politician is quoted by the fortnightly Jerusalem Report as saying that Mr Peres "is the only candidate who could run against himself and lose".

This is a little unfair. Labour has always been bad at campaigning. Earlier in the year the party brought American political consultants. Brimming with ideas, they were rapidly brought to heel by Haim Ramon, the Interior Minister and Labour campaign manager, who said he wanted a "boring campaign". He argued that Labour was well ahead in the polls and could coast to victory.

Mr Ramon, rated one of the cleverest politicians in Israel, is probably being diverted by his rivalry with Ehud Barak, the Foreign Minister. Both men would like to succeed Mr Peres, aged 72. Mr Barak is Mr Peres's personal campaign manager in the race for the Prime Minister's office. Despite this, Mr Ramon reportedly refused to show him Labour's television commercials before they were screened.

In the dying hours of the campaign, posters have been going up across Israel declaring: "Only Netanyahu. It's good for the Jews." They are being put there by Habad, an ultra-orthodox group identified with the right. The slogan is being denounced as racist because it implies Mr Peres depends on the votes of the Israeli-Arabs to win.

It is not the first time Mr Peres had been the target of an ultra-Orthodox attack. He almost formed a government in 1990, but needed the votes of some ultra- Orthodox members of the Knesset. Success hinged upon the views of 92-year- old Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach, one of their leaders. Unfortunately, Schach had been told that Labour kibbutzniks were in the habit of eating rabbit, which is forbidden under Jewish dietary law. He refused his support and Mr Peres's bid for power failed.