First among equals

In a Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post, President Shimon Peres makes a plea for equality, tolerance and politeness.

September 28, 2008 15:42
First among equals

peres to post 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Dialogue, respect, understanding, sensitivity and tolerance are five words which have long dominated the lexicon of Shimon Peres - but never more so than since he took up his position as president of the state. As the key representative of the people, on the one hand, and the No. 1 citizen on the other, Peres has to show sensitivity towards all the diverse groups that make up Israel's demographic mosaic. He also has to set an example. Peres is not opposed to people being different and espousing different views and traditions. But he is pained by the degree of intolerance among people of different ethnic, religious, ideological and political streams. Such intolerance - especially when accompanied by violence - creates national divisiveness rather than national unity. In a pre-Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post, Peres pointed to the evils of intolerance and discrimination. "Poverty, discrimination and arrogance are the enemies of peace and culture," he said. "We have to be sensitive not only to our feelings but to those of everyone else in the country." The fact that people may dress and pray differently is not a reason to mock them and be intolerant of them, he declared. WELL AWARE of complaints of discrimination by the Arab sector of the population Peres noted: "You can't have peace if you don't have equality. Peace is emotional, not only political." The emotional aspect of peace has been one of his pet themes in recent weeks, possibly because of the number of conferences and media coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Camp David Accords. Hosting a delegation of the British Friends of Labor in early September, Peres said: "If Sadat had not come to Jerusalem, we would not have peace [with Egypt]. The coming of Sadat to Jerusalem forced [prime minister Menachem] Begin to divorce his ideologies." Peres also noted the impact of the sensitivity displayed by King Hussein of Jordan when, in March 1997, he visited the families of each of the seven schoolgirls killed by a Jordanian sniper, and knelt before them to express sorrow and remorse. "That was more effective than any speech that anyone could make," stated Peres, noting that Syrian President Hafez el-Assad had not followed the examples set by Sadat and King Hussein. On September 17, exactly 30 years after the Camp David Accords, Peres received the credentials of Yasser Reda A. Aly Said, the new Egyptian ambassador, and noted that if Assad had taken Sadat's advice and accompanied him to Camp David, "we might have peace with Syria today." Once again bringing up Sadat's journey to Jerusalem in his interview with the Post, Peres sounded emotional. "The results were unbelievable. That voyage achieved more for peace than years of negotiations." Regarding the grievances of Arab citizens concerning education, employment and housing rights, Peres believed the emotional effect of having these wrongs addressed would dispel a great deal of suspicion and hostility. "We have to enable our Arab citizens to reach the same standards as the Jewish people," he said, adding that the Arab community must be better educated in hi-tech so that it will be less dependent on government hand-outs and in a better position to pay taxes. He has often said the same about the Palestinians when explaining to visiting dignitaries that there must be two-track negotiations with the Palestinians. There have to be economic negotiations parallel to the political negotiations and there has to be economic investment in the Palestinian Authority so that when the proposed two-state solution eventually becomes a reality the Palestinians won't be low-tech while the Israelis are hi-tech. Both will be hi-tech and able to cooperate on major local and international projects. He also wants to introduce more hi-tech into Israel's haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities to increase their earning potential and quality of life. CRITICIZING intolerance is easy, but changing the situation is not. Peres is the first to say that enacting more legislation against intolerance and discrimination will not solve the problem. "We have instruments that we misuse or overuse," he said. "We think all problems can be solved by introducing laws, but people don't obey laws." Laws don't solve traffic problems, he pointed out, observing that traffic problems are a reflection of behavior in general. In most television debates, he noted, neither party lets the other say a word. They are constantly bickering and interrupting each other in ever louder tones. The result is that neither side succeeds in conveying its viewpoint to the viewers, and the debaters certainly don't listen to each other. "What's happening on television is happening on the roads," said Peres. "Instead of dialoguing, people are fighting. Let's not be a nation that only has a tongue and doesn't have ears. We must be polite to each other - and not just on television and on the roads - but also in the Knesset and in our own homes. It's a matter of basic attitude." Observing that, unlike the United States, Britain does not have a written constitution, Peres referred to three words that the British live by: "It's not done." "We have to learn what things we don't do," he said. "We cannot correct society by laws but by attitude and setting an example." He didn't want to preach, he emphasized, but he was doing his best to change attitudes by setting an example by his own behavior in meetings and conversations. Although Peres is extremely well read and well informed on a wide range of subjects, he does not fall into the trap of thinking that he knows it all. "I'm trying to listen to everyone and to educate myself so that I can have a more educative effect." APROPOS education, his next appointment after talking with the Post was with celebrated Spanish writer Antonio Munoz-Molina, whose book Sepharad, an anthology of 17 stories about the Sephardi Diaspora, had caught the president's imagination. Peres, who had been told by Spanish Ambassador Alvaro Irenzo Gutirrez that the author would be in Israel in mid-September, had elicited a promise that the ambassador would bring him to Beit Hanassi. Peres likes to learn from everyone, especially from children, who, he often says, can teach their parents and grandparents more than their parents and grandparents can teach them. He is never patronizing with children, but talks to them at eye level. But whether talking to children or adults he believes that it is important to try to introduce some degree of humor into the conversation. "I try to introduce a sense of humor and not to be so tense, as if the world was ending in five minutes." This applies not only to conversations, he remarked, but also to speeches. "We write speeches as if we were writing the Gospel again." Speeches, especially those delivered in someone's honor, can be so pompous that the speaker may list a long string of the honoree's achievements without expressing appreciation for what the person has done. "When you bless someone," said Peres, "you should not forget to thank them." AS SOMEONE who has been in public life for well over half a century, Peres could easily fit into the category of "been there done that," which leads to the question of whether as president he has discovered anything he didn't know about Israel. "I was so busy running things that I looked at people with an instrumental eye," he confessed. Now, he sees them differently because he is not looking at them through a political lens, but within the framework of what they do. "I see wonderful people, free of skepticism and cynicism, and sometimes I feel that I'm living in a different country. It's not the country that changed. I've changed." AS PEOPLE enter further into the third stage of their lives, they often tend to become more religiously observant. It would seem on occasion that this also applies to Peres, who celebrated his 85th birthday in August. At the beginning of his seven-year tenure, he completed the writing of a Torah scroll in a ceremony at Beit Hanassi. The scroll was subsequently transferred to an army base. Not long afterwards, he completed the writing of another Torah scroll in Sderot. In the interim, he also reintroduced Bible study sessions into the Beit Hanassi schedule. Towards the conclusion of his state visit to Poland just before Pessah, he completed the writing of a yet another Torah scroll. During Succot, the Sderot scroll will be installed in the synagogue that stands in the grounds of Beit Hanassi. Does this mean that Peres, halfway through his ninth decade, has found religion? It might appear so, especially when he sits with his large black kippa firmly placed on his head among a group of black-clad rabbis. But according to Peres, it is more a mark of respect than anything else. "I represent all the people of Israel and that includes a very important religious population. I have to represent all walks of life, all shades and nuances and all prayers to heaven. I have a responsibility to call for tolerance and respect for the feelings of all people. I have my own rules, but different priorities." Respect for the traditions of the Jewish people has long been part and parcel of his public life. For instance, although he uses the phone on Shabbat, he will not drive on the day of rest, and in his visits abroad, has been known to walk long distances, even in inclement weather, to attend Shabbat synagogue services at the invitation of the local Jewish community. As it happens he likes to walk, and does so at every opportunity. Unfortunately, he does not have the luxury of doing much walking in Jerusalem. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, security around the country's leaders has been beefed up considerably. Peres has been constantly surrounded by security guards for so many years that they've become part of his regular entourage. They don't bother him. In fact he enjoys conversations with them. "I don't have illusionary freedom," he admitted. "I can't go everywhere I want to. The security detail may be obvious to the enemy but not to me. They're young and pleasant, and we've become friends. They're very considerate. They try to make my life as free and as easy as they can." As for walking, Peres gets plenty of exercise during his weekly tours to different towns, villages and IDF facilities. He much prefers to walk from one site to another than to be in and out of the car like a yo-yo. If he visits a kibbutz or moshav, he happily strides through the fields. He walks through army, navy and air force bases, through hospital corridors and factory plants - and he never seems to tire. His energy is such that when faced with the choice of taking the stairs or an elevator, he opts for the stairs. "I'm moving all the time," he said, and then with a grin conceded that he had to slow down sometimes "only because my friends are getting tired." AMONG THE many offices that Peres has held in his long and varied career was that of finance minister. Given the current economic situation, the subject was naturally addressed in this interview. What advice did he have for the Israeli public? First of all, he said, they have to understand the nature of modern economy and not compare it to the economy in the past. "The economic crisis results from more money than ideas. The banks had a lot of money and didn't know what to invest in. They invested in uneconomic enterprises such as mortgages, so the problems of the rich became the problems of the poor," said Peres. "The economy does not depend on the purses of the rich but on technology and innovation which have unlimited potential. Science doesn't discover anything, because everything already existed. The world existed yesterday, but we were more blind yesterday than we are today. Science is a fight against blindness. Whenever you open your eyes, you see more. We walk half blind. We don't know enough about the brain; we don't know enough about space; and we don't know enough about the deep which carries most of our water." That's why he doesn't attach much importance to the past, he said. "It's better to teach children to open their eyes and be curious about the unknown and the undiscovered." Peres is convinced that curiosity about the unknown and undiscovered will help the American economy to bounce back. "One of the great things about the United States is its welcoming attitude to new concepts. No other country is so open to new discoveries, new equipment and new ideas. This is what has produced the real wealth of America - and the public is always ready to buy everything new." HARDLY ANY conversation with Peres can pass without some mention of Iran. Whether he talks about nuclear warheads, the nuclear enrichment program or the extent to which Iran finances terrorism, Iran, whose president seeks the eradication of Israel, almost always becomes a topic of discussion. Peres has consistently advocated that the international community join forces to impose harsh economic sanctions, firmly believing that this is the best way to curtail Iran's nuclear program. If the world doesn't buy oil and other products from Iran, he has stated many times and reiterated to the Post, Iran will not be able to finance its nuclear projects. Although some of the hawkish elements in Israel would like to bomb Iran's nuclear facility, Peres is adamantly opposed to any military attack on Iran for fear that it will spark a regional catastrophe. "War should never be an option," he told the Post. He has veered backwards and forwards on the subject of a diplomatic option, and in this interview made it clear that the best course is through economic pressure. However, he refused to be pinned down to a time frame, and avoided answering a series of "what ifs…?" IT GOES without saying that the president's wish for the State of Israel in the year ahead is that it should finally know peace and that the gaps between the haves and have-nots should be considerably narrowed. But what of his personal ambitions? What does he wish for himself? He has no personal ambitions, he said. "I don't feel a shortage of luxury and money. My only ambition is to serve the country and the people in the best way I can. There are people who suffer from shortage. If I can improve the quality of life and standards of behavior, my ambitions will be realized. Working and serving is the greatest pleasure. If I can continue to serve the people at my age, I regard it as a great privilege. I feel happy that I can do it." Prior to the last presidential elections, even some of his best friends thought that he was too old to take on the task. But to Peres, work is a source of energy. He has more vim than people half his age, and he surrounds himself with young people so that he is au fait with innovation in its many guises. As a result he is old in years but young in spirit. "I'm not young because I take vacations. I don't. I'm not young because I'm lazy. I'm not - and that's not a reason to stay young. I'm young because I'm always working and learning." What he may have done by personal example is to open new horizons for people made redundant after the age of 50. After all, if Shimon Peres could start a new job after the age of 80, and carry it off with such dignity, aplomb and general approval, then someone aged 50 or 60 or more should at least be given a chance. "When I was a politician, I used to be a controversial figure," he said. "Now I'm a consensual figure. People still criticize me occasionally, but now they do it with a smile."

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