New ambassadors, especially the young ones, are often confounded when presenting
their credentials to President Shimon Peres to hear him reminiscence about
former leaders of their respective countries. In more than six decades as a
public servant, Israel’s No. 1 citizen has been there, done that – and moreover
met an extraordinary number of world leaders who have made and are making
For the purpose of this interview, Peres was presented with a
list of all the countries that have embassies in Israel. He was asked to peruse
a list – which had the names of more than 80 countries – and to name the ones
that he has not visited. He wasn’t quite certain whether he had been to Sri
Lanka when it was still Ceylon, which left only four countries that he has not
yet set foot in. These are Cambodia, Eritrea, Liberia and the Philippines. Of
the countries which have diplomatic relations, but nonresident ambassadors, he’s
been to Singapore.
Among the countries with which Israel does not have
diplomatic relations, he has been to Morocco and Indonesia, as well as others
which he preferred not to name.
Here are some highlights that Israel’s
No. 1 ambassador recalled as he sat down with The Jerusalem Post.Vietnam
Although Vietnam and Israel established diplomatic relations in July 1993,
contacts between the two countries extend much further. When Din Xuan Luu,
Vietnam’s first resident ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to
Peres in July 2009, the president congratulated the Vietnamese government on its
decision to establish an embassy in Israel.
He then told him of a meeting
in 1946 between Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion and North
Vietnam’s Politburo chairman Ho Chi Minh, when both were in Paris and staying at
the Royal Monceau Hotel.
The two had developed a friendship and Ho Chi
Minh had offered Ben-Gurion the opportunity to proclaim a Jewish government in
exile in North Vietnam and to establish its headquarters there. Peres paid a
state visit to Vietnam in November 2011.United States
Ronald Reagan was a good friend, and the two had a pact that each would tell the
other an anti-Communist joke whenever they met.
Reagan once told Peres
that in the zoo in Moscow, a wolf and a lamb had been placed in the same cage.
When someone asked the zookeeper how this was possible, the reply was: “Easy.
Every morning we put in a new lamb.”
Peres in turn had told Reagan about
a meeting between two members of the Politburo who were discussing the raising
“How is it in Hungary?” asked one. “They’re building up socialism,”
replied the other.
“What about Poland?” The reply was the same. “They’re
building up socialism.”
“What about Israel?” “Are you crazy? In their own
At a meeting with John F. Kennedy, Peres was caught off guard when the
US president asked him whether Israel was building a nuclear
Scrambling for a suitable response, Peres replied: “Israel will not
be the first to introduce nuclear power.”
That part of the conversation
was reported, and Levi Eshkol, who was then prime minister, sent an angry cable
to Peres asking him how he could say such a thing.
However, a few weeks later,
the reply that Peres had given became part of Israel’s policy towards that
question, even though it was common knowledge that a textile factory in Dimona
was not exactly what it purported to be. Peres himself began to speak about it
openly following revelations by former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu in
Also in conversation with Kennedy, Peres, who wanted to acquire
Hawk missiles, asked why America was refusing to sell them to Israel. Kennedy
replied that it was complicated but suggested that Peres talk to his brother
Bobby. “But your brother is on the other side of the Potomac,” said
Kennedy smiled and retorted: “You’re a young man, you can
As much as Peres is fond of France and many of its leaders,
former French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville was not one of his
favorite people. Prior to his appointment by president Charles de Gaulle, Couve
de Murville had been France’s ambassador in Cairo where he had fostered a close
relationship with the Arab world.
In as much as Couve de Murville was
extremely pro-Arab, Pierre Gilbert, who was France’s ambassador to Israel, was
extremely pro-Israel. The Israelis loved him, a factor that did not sit too well
with Couve de Murville, who recalled him to Paris. The Israelis were sorry to
see Gilbert go, and tried to have him reinstated.
Peres sought the
intercession of Gen. Pierre Koenig, who under de Gaulle had been chief of staff
of the Free French Forces during the Second World War. Koenig asked for a
meeting with de Gaulle, who initially refused to see him knowing in advance the
subject he wanted to raise. But Koenig persevered and eventually de Gaulle gave
him five minutes.
“All our friends say you’ve made a mistake in endorsing
Gilbert’s recall,” said Koenig.
To which de Gaulle replied: “Then the
time has come to change your friends.”
Gilbert was replaced by another
De Gaulle once asked Peres to explain Israel’s political coalition
system, which he found utterly perplexing.
“The Right is against the
people and the Left is against the government.
How can you run a
country?” he exclaimed.
Casting his mind further back, Peres recalled a
dinner at which he, de Gaulle, Ben-Gurion, and French prime minister Michel
Debré, a Catholic who was the son of well-known Jewish professor of medicine
Robert Debré, all sat at one table – so in essence, de Gaulle was the only
person at the table without Jewish genes. Curious about Ben-Gurion’s hidden
desires for his country, de Gaulle prodded him as to whether he wanted to
control Sinai or the mountains of Moab, or to find additional water
Ben-Gurion replied that had he been asked 20 or 30 years
earlier he would probably have replied in the affirmative to all three options,
but his greatest dream at that time was to have more Jews in Israel. “Where will
they come from?” asked de Gaulle.
“From America?” Ben-Gurion
“From France?” de Gaulle prodded.
Again Ben-Gurion nodded
and a disbelieving de Gaulle asked him to name any French Jew who had left for
Israel. Ben-Gurion was indeed able to do so and came up with several names of
prominent French Jewish personalities. “Where else?” asked de
“Russia,” said Ben-Gurion unhesitatingly.
De Gaulle was
incredulous. “The Soviet government will let your people go?” he queried. With
hindsight, Ben-Gurion’s confidence was not misplaced.Germany
first visit to Germany after the Holocaust, Peres wanted to meet chancellor
Konrad Adenauer, following the reparations agreement that Adenauer had reached
with Ben-Gurion. Israel was sorely in need of military equipment and Ben-Gurion
had sent Peres and Haim Laskov, who was then commander-in-chief of the Israel
Air Force, to Germany to ask Adenauer for arms, for which Israel was unable to
pay. They were told that they first had to speak to defense minister Franz Josef
Accompanied by Asher Ben-Natan, who was Israel’s first
ambassador to Germany, they visited Strauss at his home in Bavaria. En route,
they saw many uniformed soldiers and policemen, whose presence evoked a chilling
reminder of the recently deposed Nazi regime. Strauss was known to be a man who
liked his brew, and after six hours of drinking and talking, Peres finally said
to him that he wanted German arms free of charge.
Strauss referred him to
the head of Socialist faction, who told him that nothing could be done without
Peres called Adenauer, who was more accessible
than political leaders are today, and asked for an appointment.
told him to come the next day, which was Saturday. Peres said he couldn’t,
because as a representative of the Israeli government, he could not publicly
violate the Jewish Sabbath.
“So come on Sunday,” said
Aware that Adenauer was Catholic, Peres said in surprise: “Do
you work on Sunday?’ “Someone has to work,” Adenauer replied.China
years later, when Peres as foreign minister visited China, well in advance of
the establishment of diplomatic ties, it happened to be his birthday, and the
Chinese honored him with a birthday cake and wine.
The next time he
visited China, he went to Shanghai, where he delivered a speech in English. He
noticed that at one stage the translator encountered difficulties and afterwards
she asked if he would mind telling her the meaning of the words she didn’t
She had never heard of anti- Semitism or the Shoah, despite
the fact that Shanghai had been a haven for Jews fleeing from Nazi occupied
Peres’s third visit to China was for the opening of the Beijing
Because this would have entailed travel on the Jewish Sabbath –
something he was not prepared to do – organizers converted a guest house within
the Olympic village for his comfort and built a special red carpeted tunnel for
him to walk from there to his seat so that there would be no question with
regard to any Sabbath desecration. This ensured that he could sit together with
the president of the United States and the prime minister of England.
Chinese also honored him by translating his book on The New Middle East into
Chinese. Peres credits Israel’s excellent and ever-improving relationship with
China to the late Shoul Eisenberg, an international businessman with strong
military industries connections to China who launched the Israel China
Friendship Society, of which Peres was the long time honorary
Burma, now known as Myanmar, was among the first
countries to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations. In the early
1950s, Ben-Gurion visited Burma, and prime minister U Nu visited Israel. Burma’s
terrain was saturated with forests, while Israel at the time of U Nu’s visit was
almost barren. Not realizing the reason for this, U Nu congratulated Israel on
having cleared the forests.
Some years later, when Ne Win was president
of Burma and wanted to build an army, Israel sold Spitfires to Burma, which flew
via Iraq to get to their destination. Peres and defense minister Moshe Dayan
were invited to Burma to celebrate Burma’s spitfire acquisition, and every night
throughout their stay, the Burmese put on a pageant in their honor.Ghana
When former ambassador of Ghana Henry Hanson Hall presented his credentials,
Peres plied him with stories of Kwame Nkrumah, who was Ghana’s first
Nkrumah had spent many years away from his native land and his
mother’s house, studying in England and then in the United States, where he was
president of the US African Students Organization. When he eventually returned
home after a 12 year absence, he knocked on the door of his mother’s house. A
voice from the other side inquired who was knocking.
When he stated his
name, he was not believed and was told that Kwame was in America. After some
persistent argument on his part, his mother opened the door but did not
Nkrumah was born with six fingers on one hand, and when he
held out his hand to his mother as proof that he was her son, she was still not
fully convinced. She wanted to see his teeth, because was born with an unusually
large gap between his two front teeth.
This time, the proof had
Nkrumah had undergone dental treatment in America and the
gap no longer existed. But after talking to his mother for a little longer, he
was finally able to persuade her that he was indeed her son.Kenya
Yitzhak Rabin and Peres visited Jomo Kenyatta – the founding father of Kenya –
in his village, he was 70 years old. There was a small forest in the village
courtyard. Kenyatta explained its origins. “For every one of our fighters that
the British hanged, I plant a tree.” Then he added: “I feel like Moses. He
traveled 40 years in the desert and never arrived at the Promised Land. I hid
for 40 years in Mount Kenya in my land, but only then did I reach my promised
After recounting this anecdote, Peres added a sideline noting
that Israel trained some of Kenya’s freedom fighters at Mount Carmel. As defense
minister he went to visit them. Two of the fighters were standing on the alert
with their fingers on the trigger. Peres asked their commander why they were
holding their fingers on the trigger.
“He looked at me and said: ‘Sir,
what will happen if a tiger appears?’”
South Africa Peres was also friendly with
Nelson Mandela. During one of his visits with the former South African
president, Mandela told Peres about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a
court of forgiveness – headed by Desmond Tutu, another prominent South African
whom Peres counts as a friend. Peres asked Mandela how he could forgive the
Afrikaners who tortured his people.
“He looked at me and said: ‘This is
South Africa. If we do not let bygones be bygones, we shall not make a different
future.’ “On my way out I was accompanied by his aide. I also asked him how he
could forgive. His answer was: ‘In the heart of every South African, there
resides a small Nelson Mandela.’”