US President Barack Obama toasts with former president Shimon Peres after Obama was presented with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor, in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
He is the national brand of Israel.
Citizens of the world may vaguely be aware of “Bibi” or wars in Gaza or the Start-Up Nation, but it seems like everyone heard about Shimon Peres.
Watching the TV news archival footage that appeared behind the special broadcasts following his stroke, it was startling to recall the breadth of his magnetism and appeal. Peres attracted everyone, from heads of state to pop stars. Obama, Blair, Matisyahu, Pamela Anderson – they all wanted to shake the hand that served alongside David Ben-Gurion.
It’s no wonder. It is a handshake full of history, a hand that also shook the hand of Yasser Arafat, helped establish Israel’s nuclear program, and guided the country’s course for decades. He is synonymous with the growth of Israel from its infancy to its maturity, and being in the same room with Peres felt like being privy to the soundtrack of that journey. Since finishing his term as one of Israel’s most beloved presidents, Peres has held court at the Peres Center for Peace as the country’s wise elder statesman. And if you were lucky, you’d get to make a pilgrimage to the beachfront fortress on the Jaffa-Holon border and bask in his still formidable presence for a few minutes.
I was lucky a few times. My first journey to his spacious office was in 2014 with Steve Linde, The Jerusalem Post
’s editor at the time, for an off-the record conversation.
Peres has always displayed boundless mental energy, speaking authoritatively and expansively on issues ranging from his own legacy to Israel’s standing in the world, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy. In undiplomatic terms he was unable to use as president, Peres criticized the prime minister’s policies regarding the Palestinians and Iran.
Later that year, during an on-the-record interview ahead of his appearance at the 2014 Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, Peres covered much of the same ground with most of his alertness intact. Perhaps a little more frail and not as focused, he wasn’t just a marvel for a 91-year-old, he was sharper than most public personalities half his age.
“Those who have given up on peace are the delusional ones, those who gave up and stopped looking for peace. They’re the naive ones, the ones who are not patriots,” he said, when asked what he thought of those who heaped abuse on him for helping to father the Oslo Accords.
Ever the eternal optimist, he retained an innate enthusiasm and child-like curiosity, graciously accepting a blueberry muffin made by my wife, inquiring about its New England origins and enjoying it immensely during the interview.
Late last year at his office, I met Peres when I presented the statesman with an advanced copy of my co-authored book on an effective Israeli-developed treatment for Parkinson’s disease. It was a prime example of Israeli innovation, a topic close to his heart. He politely listened to the involved description of the book, but I noticed that he was seemed to drifting in and out.
However, when we filmed a short video presenting him with a copy, he took the book and said loudly and clearly, “It’s not a book, it’s hope.”
Seemingly hardly paying attention, he had successfully synthesized the book’s message down to that succinct sentence. I realized then that he had probably survived and thrived for such a long time in public life by using a similar strategy – of seeing through the details and extracting the big picture.
When I asked him in 2014 if he thought that Ben-Gurion would feel pride if he was able to see what Israel has become, he answered, “Ben-Gurion didn’t look for pride, he looked for challenges.”
Turning to himself, he added, “We’re still building our state.
When you’re building, are you satisfied before you’ve completed the task?” Peres’s role in building Israel is nearly over; it’s up to the rest of us to take up the slack and ensure that his efforts will continue on the path that he and Ben-Gurion forged for us.