What do Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States and I, an Australian-born journalist living for more than half her lifetime in Jerusalem, have in common? We were both at the 80th and 90th birthday parties for Shimon Peres.
There were loads of international dignitaries and celebrities at the 80th birthday bash in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, now known as the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, and even more at the 90th birthday gala at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, but what was most memorable about the 80th birthday was Clinton getting up on stage and singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” with then 16-yearold Israeli singing sensation Liel and a back-up chorus of 40 Jewish children and 40 Arab children. The audience went wild as Clinton and Liel stood together center stage, with him all but forgetting the words as he stopped to gaze at her in admiration, entranced by her powerful voice, and giving her a big hug afterwards.
“Imagine,” as far as Clinton was concerned, became the Peres theme song, and he mentioned it on other occasions when they were together in Israel or in the US.
But Peres had another song that he loved, “Avinu Malkeinu,” which is featured several times in the Yom Kippur liturgy. It was sung by his grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, in the synagogue in Vishnie, in what was then Poland, with the young Shimon held close under his grandfather’s prayer shawl. Less than a decade after Peres, his parents and his younger brother left Poland, his grandfather was burned alive in that synagogue by the Nazis.
Liel would have given a great rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu,” which Peres wanted to hear on his 90th birthday, but he preferred to have it sung by Barbra Streisand, and she specially came to Israel to oblige. It was sung again at his funeral by David D’Or, who has sung for royalty and heads of state and government around the world, but was never so emotionally moved as when asked to sing at Peres’s funeral. He had sung several times at state dinners when Peres was president, but to sing for him one last time was for D’Or the pinnacle of his career, even though he still has many years of achievement ahead of him.
With regard to both birthday parties, Peres was subjected to a great deal of criticism before, during and after, and accused in some quarters of simply being a narcissist. To pretend that he didn’t enjoy the adulation would be foolish. Some of it may have been embarrassing and a little over the top, but how many of us can honestly say that we would not bask in the warmth and balm to the ego of so many great figures from so many countries and so many different backgrounds coming to do us honor on a milestone birthday?
The two celebrity-studded events were not solely for Peres but also for Israel, because the presence of so many famous people temporarily diminished the media focus on political, security and economic issues, and diverted attention to the international who’s who – who despite frequent attacks on Israel in and by the United Nations and its individual member states, put all criticism aside and came to join in the festivities.
Although Peres was to some extent involved in preparing the guest lists, the 80th birthday party was actually hosted by Moshe Katsav, who had defeated Peres the first time that they stood for the presidential election.
Katsav had a grudging respect for Peres, and could certainly afford to be generous in victory. In addition, everyone involved with the arrangements was fully aware of what a coup it was for Israel to have so many past and present world leaders and people of influence come together in this tiny bastion of democracy in the Middle East.
It was bigger and better for the 90th birthday party, because Peres, still in office, was the oldest head of state in the Western world.
But more than that, he brought his birthday forward to become an integral part of his annual Facing Tomorrow Conference, in which 3,000 invitees from around the globe came to Jerusalem, not only to celebrate, but to give lectures and participate in workshops on a myriad of subjects. There was also the underlying political importance that all this was happening in Jerusalem, which many foreign statesmen and politicians have yet to recognize as Israel’s capital.
The event was widely reported in the international media, and Peres wanted to make sure that the dateline was Jerusalem – not Tel Aviv.
Peres had previously resided in Jerusalem as foreign minister and as prime minister, but in neither case for as long as he lived in the capital as president.
On his first day as the seven-year occupant of Beit Hanassi (The President’s Residence), all the regular Beit Hanassi reporters congregated outside the presidential compound hoping to get some comment from him now that he’d finally won an election.
But his spokeswoman, Ayelet Frisch, who was determined to play down the negative and accentuate the positive, wouldn’t let us anywhere near him until such time as he had settled in. It was particularly important to those staff members who had accompanied him for years, that Peres should feel at home in his office, and in as much as possible, it was a duplicate of his office at the Peres Center for Peace, the 20th anniversary of which was marked this year.
What most of the public, including the media, may not have realized was that many of the dignitaries who came to one or both of the Peres birthday parties were members of the International Board of Governors of the Peres Center, which included former presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers of countries such as Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, Spain, USA, South Africa, Mexico, Malta, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Norway, Russia, Poland, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mauritius, Slovakia, Peru and Cyprus, as well as leading business people, writers, jurists, academics, and theater personalities from these and other countries, including Israel.
The list of Peres’s personal connections to people in high places is overwhelming, as was his memory for details about meetings that he had with them.
He was one of the few world leaders who personally knew every president of France from Charles de Gaulle to François Hollande.
He also knew every president of the United States from Dwight D.
Eisenhower to Barack Obama, who presented him with the Medal of Freedom. Peres was the first Israeli to receive America’s highest civilian honor. He had been honored in many other countries, but this was particularly important to him. He created a similar award in Israel of which Obama, Henry Kissinger and Elie Wiesel were among the recipients. Peres saw this award not only as a means of recognizing unique contributions to humanity, but also as a more positive means of promoting Israel awareness. Unfortunately, the Medal of Distinction has not been presented during the two and a quarter years in which Reuven Rivlin has been in office.
As president, Peres also began to believe that religious leaders have more influence than political leaders, and visited and hosted popes Benedict XVI and Francis, and before he was president, he also met with pope John Paul II.
He also met with Muslim and Druse spiritual leaders and hosted and participated in ecumenical prayer meetings aimed at reducing violence and promoting world peace, especially in the Middle East.
At one such meeting in the Vatican hosted by Pope Francis, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also participated, and photographs taken then show Peres and Abbas embracing and enjoying each other’s company in a close tête–à–tête. The two also got together on other occasions which were not public, but which may help explain why Abbas defied widespread Palestinian opposition and attended Peres’s funeral.
In the last two years of his presidency, Peres spoke constantly of the importance of the Ten Commandments, but great intellectual that he was, he repeatedly made the mistake of stating how many words there are in the Ten Commandments, never taking into account that this did not make sense to an English speaking audience – especially a group of Evangelicals who know the Ten Commandments by heart, and could immediately “prove” him wrong on the word count, which is considerably higher in English.
Peres was never afraid to talk to the media, and was always willing to answer questions if a spokesperson didn’t stop him in time.
In interviews he was amazingly candid. On one occasion when I interviewed him, I brought him a list of all the countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations and asked how many he’d been to.
He’d been to nearly all of them – meaning more than 150.
But then he added in an off-hand tone of voice that there were several countries with which Israel has no diplomatic ties that he had also visited. While the presidency is an apolitical position, Peres had no qualms about voicing his opinion on certain political issues. He was always careful to exclude political personalities from either complimentary or critical remarks, even though he could be extremely flattering when talking about political figures in more general terms without any specific reference to political incidents or developments.
Something of the farmer remained in Peres the ex-kibbutznik, who had once dreamed of being a shepherd and a poet.
He loved to participate in the olive harvest, and invited youngsters from peripheral areas and from kibbutzim and moshavim to join him in the garden of the President’s Residence in harvesting the olives at the start of the harvest season. He was very proud of a hybrid tree of figs and olives even though it had been in the garden since long before his time. Almost every time he visited a kibbutz, he loved to handle and even feed the baby lambs or calves. He asked questions about the agricultural produce, the quality and variety of tomatoes and the increase in milk yields that was the result of agricultural technology. In speeches that he delivered to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, institutions and delegations both in Israel and abroad, he made a point of listing agricultural and medical achievements.
When he spoke of Israel’s defense industries, in which he had played such a crucial role, he barely mentioned his own involvement, but always gave credit to others, and explained that Israel the Start- Up Nation was a case of necessity being the mother of invention.
The refusal by most countries to supply Israel with arms during the War of Independence more or less forced Israel to use its brainpower, and the resultant creative thinking contributed greatly not only to Israel’s security, but to her economy, and paved the way for ongoing scientific and technological innovation.
He was fond of attributing Israel’s successes in many fields to the fact that “Jews are never satisfied.” They always want to find out more and to do more, he used to say.
Peres was a great advocate for women’s rights. He genuinely believed that women were entitled to education, to the same opportunities as men in the workplace and to the same salaries for the same job.
It wasn’t just a matter of lip service. The three major figures in his working life as president were Efrat Duvdevani, who was the director general of the President’s Office, Yona Bartal, the deputy director general, whose cellphone contains the direct phone numbers of the most important people in the world; and his spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch. Duvdevani and Bartal had been working with and for Peres since long before the presidency, and most of their assistants as well as those of Frisch were female.
Although there were many stories about Peres undermining colleagues and rivals, he was in fact quite generous of spirit both during and after his presidency. Only a month before his own funeral, he eulogized Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who in the final phase of his life was a sick old man who was being charged with corruption.
But Peres ignored all that and reflected only on Ben-Eliezer’s glory days and his popularity across the political spectrum.
When Ehud Olmert initially came under a cloud of suspicion and Peres was asked to comment, he said that until Olmert was found guilty by a court of law, he would continue to regard him as innocent.
Peres also stood by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak prior to and immediately after his arrest.
What impressed many people, whether they liked Peres or not was his phenomenal memory for detail and his extraordinary range of knowledge. When talking about meetings that he had with world leaders, or those that he sat in on when accompanying Israel’s founding prime minister and his lifelong mentor David Ben-Gurion, Peres could for instance describe who sat where when they were having coffee with de Gaulle and who said what to whom. He could enter into a riveting conversation with just about anyone, and was amazingly respectful of children, never talking down to them, but listening with keen interest to what they had to say while trying to look at the world through their eyes, and pursuing the conversation as if he were discussing international affairs with a global leader.
Although Peres was frequently described as indefatigable, he was after all only human and not exactly a young man. There were times when his face drooped and his body sagged, but then he would become engaged in a stimulating conversation, and all of a sudden, all signs of weariness would disappear and his face would light up with some kind of inner radiance that spread to the rest of his body.
It caused him to stand straight, to smile and to move with a sturdy step.
When Peres smiled, it truly lit up a room, and that’s a memory that many people will carry with them for years to come.