If one were to judge by his visit to the U.S. this week, it seems that President Shimon Peres is the closest thing we have had to a king of Israel in the last two millennia.
One would be hard pressed to remember the last time an Israeli leader was feted with the praise and pomp which awaited the president upon his arrival. From his stay at Blair House, the official residence reserved for foreign leaders; to the state ceremonies, including a full military honor guard and a special tour at the Pentagon; to face-to-face meetings with senior administration officials; and, of course, a presidential summit with the leader of the free world, President Barack Obama.
All of this came before we even mentioned the real reason for Peres’ visit to the U.S. The president came to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. president can bestow upon a civilian.
“An ardent advocate for Israel's security and for peace, Shimon Peres was elected the ninth president of Israel in 2007,” Obama said in a written statement. “Through his life and work, he has strengthened the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States.”
Make no mistake, even for Peres, who has garnered every imaginable honor that the diplomatic world can offer, including the Nobel Prize and an honorary knighthood from the U.K., this was a moving moment. “I had no idea [that I was going to receive the award],” he told Israel Hayom in an exclusive interview. “I was stunned.”
“Even when I won the Nobel Prize, I was surprised,” he said. “The Norwegian ambassador came to see me in the morning and he informed me that I had won. Then, much like now, I had no idea. I was also surprised when I was awarded the title of ‘sir’ in England.”
Peres insists that it isn’t the award that makes the event special, but the reasons that led to his winning. “I think that this award is something extraordinary in U.S.-Israel relations,” he said. “At a time when the U.S. is up to its neck with problems of its own and when it’s preoccupied with an election campaign, it voted for Israel. I look at this prize as an award for the State of Israel and not for me personally, and this certainly moves me.”
The president is too humble, of course. This year, 13 individuals received the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, among them legendary singer Bob Dylan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former senator and astronaut John Glenn. With the exception of Peres, all the recipients were awarded the prize at a White House ceremony. Peres was the only one honored with an event devoted exclusively to him, with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance. He was greeted by the Obamas and cheered by 140 guests in attendance, among them former presidents and senior government officials. He was also treated to a presidential dinner and, for dessert, a special concert put on by violinist Yitzhak Perlman. Peres swears that he had no inkling he would be granted such an extraordinary honor.
There is something exhilarating about the Presidential Medal of Freedom, even for Peres. Not only did the U.S. president invite a number of dignitaries from Israel who are close to Peres, but he also extended invitations to Peres' children, Tzvia Walden, Yonatan Peres and Chemi Peres, and their spouses. They were all in attendance in Washington to see Peres receive the award.
The importance Peres attributes to the award is perhaps rooted in the special relationship he has crafted with Obama. While senior officials in the Israeli government have had their ups and downs with the American president, Peres and Obama have always shared a common language.
“I first heard about Obama in the middle of the last decade, after he was elected to the Senate,” Peres said. “I had no idea he would eventually become president, but he intrigued me, so I asked to meet him. I went over to his office in the Senate building, and we chatted for an hour or so – and the rest is history. I was quite impressed, and I think this may have been the start of our relationship. I don’t want to say that I discovered him or something like that. I read about him, and I heard about him before we met. At the meeting itself, I found a very compelling man, a very interesting man, and that was where things really got off on the right foot.”
Nonetheless, Peres is careful to point out that this is not the first time he has developed close, personal ties with an American president. “There’s been almost no American president with whom I haven’t shared excellent ties,” he said. The president recalls a meeting he had with the late Ronald Reagan, who occupied the Oval Office during the Cold War.
“This was a person with whom I didn’t expect to have a good relationship, but with Reagan I had outstanding relations,” he said. “I’ll tell you a story that I haven’t told to anyone else. I had this ritual with Reagan, where every time we would meet he would tell me this anti-Russian joke and I had to come back with an anti-Russian joke of my own. I would always come to these meetings ready with a joke. I never came to a meeting without one.
“I can remember the last time we swapped jokes. Reagan told a joke about an American who visited a zoo in Moscow and he saw that a wolf was living with a sheep. The American went to the zoo manager and asked: ‘How did you do this?’ The manager replied: ‘Very simple. Every morning we replace the ewe.’”
“I came back with a story that I brought over from Israel. Two Jews meet up. One tells the other that his son is in Hungary. ‘What’s he doing there?’ the other Jew asked.
‘He’s building socialism,’ comes the answer.
Then he said that his other son was in Czechoslovakia.
‘He, too, is building socialism,’ he said.
The other Jew wondered: ‘But where is your youngest son?’
He replied, ‘He’s in Israel.’
‘What’s he doing in Israel?’ he wondered. ‘Is he building socialism there too?’
‘Are you crazy?! In his own country?!?’ he answered.”
No senior political figure across the ideological spectrum in the U.S., from Democrats to Republicans, sounded a peep of criticism against awarding Peres the Medal of Freedom. Everyone was eager to shower him with compliments. Just one month after Peres, who will turn 89 in August, underwent surgery to repair a hernia, he traveled to and fro, from Washington to New York, from meeting to meeting, from interview to interview, as his admirers swooned in his presence. When asked how he was feeling, the president replied in his typical, nonchalant style: “The surgery was the doctor’s problem, not mine.”
The extent to which Peres is accorded respect as a veteran diplomat was manifest during a specially arranged tour of the Pentagon on Monday. After he was given full military honors and following a one-on-one sit-down with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Peres held court with Panetta and other American defense officials, among them the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, during which the president briefed them with an analysis of the geopolitical situation.
Those present during the meeting said that Peres patiently answered every question thrown his way by his riveted audience. “It was a compelling meeting,” said Panetta, who awarded Peres a special award on behalf of the Pentagon.
Peres knows that it will take much more than plaudits and platitudes to solve the impasse of Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon. Despite the doubts, Peres is convinced that the Americans, along with the entire world, view the issue with sufficient concern and the necessary sense of urgency.
“Let me say this clearly and concisely,” he said. “I don’t think that the U.S. could live with a terrorist Iran armed with a nuclear weapon that is trying to assert control over the Middle East. Not only would this be an Iranian victory, but a victory for the entire axis of evil. Iran is the only country that has imperialist aims in the name of religion. No responsible government can permit a situation whereby the Middle East falls victim to Iranian hegemony. America simply cannot afford this.”
Can the solution be found in sanctions?
“I think that all the pressure currently being applied on Iran is not a substitute policy, but a very fundamental, elementary thing. America is trying, and, in my view, sensibly so, to see whether it is possible to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran through economic sanctions. President Obama said that at the same time, ‘All options are on the table,’ and I think that this is a reasonable policy.”
Peres is interested in minimizing chatter on the Iranian issue while insisting that relations with the Obama administration are strong. “The cooperation between us is good, but I don’t think this is an issue for public discussion,” he said. “I regret the public chatter on this topic, and I don’t want to be part of it.”
The president also refused to comment on recent reports that appear to have been leaked by administration officials and which shed light on the cyberwar which the U.S. and Israel have been allegedly waging against Iran. Peres is willing to divulge that he has full faith in Obama, even if military action is necessary.
“I think that this president will do whatever is necessary for the benefit of America,” he said. “Just like Obama did not hesitate to take a number of controversial steps in the war on terrorism, things that were not expected of him. To the president’s credit, when he traveled to receive his Nobel Prize at the beginning of his term in office, he said: ‘Guy, thanks for the prize, but I can’t promise you that I will always be for peace. There may be instances in which I will have to use other means.’ So why shouldn’t I believe him?”
“I believe in Obama’s seriousness regarding America,” Peres said. “He’s not doing us a favor. We have the same exact interests. It’s not just him. You can ask the same question of German Chancellor [Angela] Merkel and [newly elected] French President [Francois] Hollande. They’re not dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue as a favor to Israel. This is a threat to the entire world.”
Aside from the Iranian issue, Peres this week tried to restart the moribund peace process which he holds so dear to his heart. There is a near consensus view that the negotiations with the Palestinians are dying. Even Obama told a group of American rabbis last week that he was fearful the Palestinian leadership was no longer interested in advancing the peace process. Yet, Peres retains his characteristic optimism.
“I don’t think that leaders determine what happens in the world, but what happens in the world determines what policies the leaders take,” he said. “I don’t know of one leader who did not ultimately surrender to the needs of the period. The leader has no choice. A leader can certainly impact history, but never in the way that he wants.
“The Arab world has no choice but to make peace. There is no one around to subsidize war. They’ve reached the point where they have to escape the cycle of poverty. What we are seeing now is an Arab ‘exodus from Egypt.’ It took us 40 years to get out of Egypt. It’s not because the desert is so vast. It can be crossed in two weeks. I think that the people need to traverse an intellectual desert in order to accord themselves with the new situation. I don’t think it will take 40 years, and I also don’t think it will take four years. A new generation will begin to move.”
Peres also believes that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a “serious partner.”
“It’s not because of Israel that there has been an awakening in the Middle East,” he said. “Rather, it is because of the state of the Arabs. There is no longer the choice of subsisting solely from the ground, because it is poor. One can only sustain existence from science. Knowledge knows no borders. Right now we are experiencing the birth pangs of the Middle East. Will it last nine months? I don’t know. But at the end of the day there is no other alternative but to opt for peace.”
In the meantime, he is convinced that both sides need to start talking.
“I know that the negotiations themselves will take time, but there is great importance in launching a process and serious dialogue between both sides without further delays,” he said. “People need to understand that dialogue is always preferable to stalemate.”
Aside from discussions over diplomatic and defense matters, one name reverberated throughout the president’s entourage – Jonathan Pollard. Before his meeting with Obama, the Israeli president pledged to request once again that Obama consider releasing the Israeli spy.
“I will talk to him person to person,” he said. “I will ask for [Pollard’s] release.”
Asked what he expected Obama’s response to be, Peres chose his words carefully, saying that he did not know “what considerations he is faced with,” and that he “intends on focusing on the humanitarian issue.” Before the summit with Obama, officials said the chances that Obama would agree to pardon Pollard at this stage were slim, almost nil.
Moments before the ceremony at the White House, which marks another milestone in Peres’ impressive career, I asked the president if he had any regrets looking back on his career.
“Of course I have regrets,” he said. “The London Agreement was one of them, and I also think that after the Six-Day War we had to be more active in trying to attain peace. I won’t go so far as to say that I didn’t make mistakes, but others also made mistakes. I’m a believer in a ‘socialism of mistakes,’ which distributes itself more equally than anything else in the world. Luckily for us, history corrects itself. We came to this new era in the Middle East. It’s not like we made it happen. We ran into it, all of us.”
If there is one thing that Peres doesn’t regret, it’s his career path. While many in Israel are disgusted and alienated by politicians, the president has no doubts that leadership was his calling. “In modern terms, leadership doesn’t mean to exert control, but to serve,” he said. “Personally, it is a pleasure to serve others. Today I think people can gain much more through good will rather than through force.”
“There’s something I’ve learned about Israelis, for better or worse,” he said. “Israelis don’t like laws. Look at how people drive; it’s depressing. On the other hand, go into a first-grade classroom and ask the children to volunteer for something, and everybody jumps up. That same Israeli who detests the law is ready to volunteer, and to do so enthusiastically.”
After occupying just about every possible position in politics, this was a lesson he learned only after taking up an avowedly apolitical office. “I discovered this as president,” he said. “When I was prime minister, I would rarely hear the word ‘yes.’ Since I became president, I’ve yet to hear the word ‘no.’”