Without a doubt, the most popular person and leader in Israel of 2012 and the Jewish year of 5773 that is coming to a close is President Shimon Peres. Not only has he restored the stature of the presidency, but in many ways Peres has become the anchor of our democratic system – a system suffering from extreme polarization, total fragmentation and a tragic loss of values and direction.

Among all of our institutions Israelis least trust the Knesset, the parties and the government. Israeli democracy is endangered by fanatic and violent right-wing extremism – as exemplified by the settlers and the perpetrators of “price-tag” vandalism, by racist, violent outbursts against minorities inspired by the racist legislation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and co., by the theocratic world view of the haredim, by the right-wing onslaught on the judicial system and the High Court of Justice, and by the weakness of a government and prime minister who see in all of the above “natural allies.”

Israel’s main asset in its nation-building process was its vibrant democratic fabric, based on the values of mutual respect and equality as expressed in our Declaration of Independence. This democracy is today in danger and so are its underlying values.

The public senses the crisis of democratic governance and therefore looks up to the presidency and to the positions taken by Israel’s young “elder statesman.”

Peres was there from day one. He contributed more than any other living person to the building of Israel, to the absorption of exiles, to the development of a strong army and security apparatus, to a modern economy linked to the world and to the essential need for peace.

From Dimona to Oslo and beyond, Peres guided the country to a safe and prosperous existence. With all this experience, today more than ever, Peres must be listened to.

Already in the early Fifties, the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion, had his eye on the young Peres, appointing him to be in charge of the Defense Ministry. Ben- Gurion, traumatized by the Holocaust, believed in the need to develop a strategic deterrent and therefore listened to Peres when he advised acquiring a nuclear reactor from France in 1956 and then developed Dimona.

When the time came and Israel was strong enough to make peace and resolve the existential Palestinian conflict of two nations fighting for the same land, Yitzhak Rabin listened to Peres when he advised that Israel begin talking to the PLO in Oslo.

Peres led these negotiations to a point where a nightmare scenario – a greater Palestine or a greater Israel, from the river to the sea – became impossible.

In both cases, Dimona and Oslo, Peres ensured our very being as a Jewish democracy.

And now it’s time to learn from Ben-Gurion and Rabin and listen to Peres.

FIRST AND foremost, the people of Israel should listen to him when he speaks and guides us on the main topics related to our democracy, security and well-being.

• On education: Peres has an unwritten alliance with the young generation in the country – from kindergarten to university.

Peres is a great believer in the fundamental role of education, he believes in affordable education at a high level, for all, from Dimona to Tel Aviv. The learning of the Bible, of literature and of scientific and technological developments – he believes that only through good education can we remain competitive in a changing modern world. Science and technology are paramount as they lead to the creativity of society and economy.

• The empowerment of youth: Peres believes that in the Israel of today the youth must lead. They know best how to relate to the world through the Internet and social networks, and how to use the tools of the information and technology revolution for social change.

• The hi-tech superpower: Scientific research and the development of modern start-up industries, both in the center and in the periphery, will keep further promoting us as a world power in hi-tech. The educational and business environment of Israel must remain attractive in order to prevent a brain drain. Science and technology in his mind are today more important for a country than land and territory.

• The moral values of the country: Peres is deeply concerned by the recent racist outbreaks – both in discourse and in violent acts – against Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, Eritrean refugees, and women. He is guided by the notion that the moral high ground is also the basis for a nation’s power – and therefore he stands at the forefront of condemnation of the new, ugly phenomenon of Jewish racism.

• Iran: Last month, Peres courageously came out publicly against the option of Israel striking Iran alone, and instead counseled for close cooperation with our American ally and for belonging to the international coalition attempting to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear military power, understanding the limitations of our power and the opportunities of an international coalition led by the United States.

• Peace: Peres deeply believes that the biggest asset that Israel is lacking for its national security and economic well-being is peace with the Arab world, first and foremost with the Palestinians. As someone who contributed to Israel’s strong military capacity, he believes that this power is best used when translated into an accommodation with the Arabs. He knows the Arab world and its leadership and is often highly critical of it; yet this is the neighborhood in which, through strength and wisdom, we must coexist. He therefore supports the Obama vision as expressed in the American president’s speeches and in their many encounters.

He sees in Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) a relatively moderate partner with whom a deal is possible once we comprehend that a peace compromise with security measures is more important to our security than the settlements. That in turn will bring parts of the Arab and Muslim world closer to us, putting a wedge between them and Iran, not to mention the United States and the international community.

This will also rid us of a morally corrupting occupation and create new educational, social and economic priorities inside the country that will only strengthen us.

The alternative may be devastating. Most important is the time element – while our president is generally a patient man, he knows that, given the shifting sands in the Arab and Muslim world, the time for such historical decisions is now.

Peres, as president, has no executive power, only moral clout as the “first citizen” and as a voice of experience and innovation to which the whole world listens. It is, therefore, now up to us to listen to him.

Shana tova!

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

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