Did Peres’s mission miss its mark?

Medvedev met Hamas's Mashaal after hosting Peres.

May 14, 2010 06:10
3 minute read.
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES receives an honorary doctor

Peres doctorate Moscow 311. (photo credit: GPO)


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This past Sunday, on a brilliant Moscow spring morning, President Shimon Peres sat with other heads of state watching the biggest Victory Day parade held in the 65 years since Nazi Germany signed its surrender to the Red Army.

That same day, Peres met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He asked Medvedev to pass along to Syrian President Bashar Assad Israel’s concerns about Damascus’s arming Lebanon’s Hizbullah, ahead of the Russian president’s state visit to Syria.

Time and again during Peres’s visit – in comments to the Israeli press delegation, in a speech at a Euro-Asian Jewish Congress ceremony, and upon receiving an honorary doctorate at the MGIMO institute in Moscow – the Israeli president spoke of the tremendous contributions made by Russian immigrants in theater, science, technology, defense, medicine, literature, and chess. He spoke of the golden years after the founding of Israel, when Russian clothing, music and food dominated the culture of the nascent Jewish state.

Peres also spoke admiringly about the sacrifices the Russian people had made to defeat the Nazis, which he said was “first and foremost the victory of the Red Army and the entire Russian people.”

In addition to highlighting the often overlooked contribution of the Red Army to winning World War II, Peres added that the Russian people and Jews of Europe were the two greatest victims of the war.

Each time during his comments, after paying his respects to the Red Army and doing his part to correct a somewhat distorted historical narrative often followed in the United States and Britain regarding the elements of victory in World War II, Peres also took pains to praise the history of Russia’s treatment of Jews, albeit admitting to students at MGIMO that this “did have its ups and downs.”

The Jewish people owe the Russians thanks not only for defeating Nazi Germany, said the president, but also because for over 1,000 years, Russia – “the largest Jewish area of settlement in the world at the time” – had allowed this majority of the world’s Jewish population “to live as a people and pray to their God, to hope of returning to their homeland.”

One assumes that the president did not consult former Refuseniks Yuli Edelstein or Natan Sharansky, or any of the other hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Russian Jews to whom the Soviet Union forcibly “provided a home” long after they wanted to leave its confines. Such enforced contributors to Russian culture also had their nationality stated as “Jewish” on their passports, and well over a million of them fled for greener pastures the moment they were given the opportunity.

The president’s statements in Moscow seemed to follow a tactical sequence: The Jewish people thanks you for winning WWII, the Jewish people appreciates our shared history, the people of Israel appreciate the contribution of Russian immigrants, Israel and Russia have a shared vision for peace, Syria and its missiles are a threat to this peace, and Iran is a threat to everyone’s peace.

By the time Peres was making the last of these empathetic, common-interest salvos, however, Medvedev was already in Damascus, taking in another country where Jews were given a place to live, though their history there “had its ups and downs” as well.

While it’s safe to assume that Peres does have a genuine appreciation for the cultural wealth of Russia and the tremendous contributions Russian Jews have made to Israel, the celebration of the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany presented a perfect opportunity to meet with Russian leaders behind closed doors, and prominently express his appreciation for all things Russian – in the hope that the flow of some of them, notably rockets and reactors, to Hizbullah and Iran respectively, would cease.

Unfortunately, however, the overt signs are that the Israeli president’s diplomacy, though ostensibly much appreciated by his hosts, has done little to sway them. On Tuesday, the very day that Peres donned his mortarboard at MGIMO, Medvedev met not only with Assad but also with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Later that day, the Russian president hinted at the possibility of building nuclear reactors in Syria and increasing Russia-Syria energy cooperation, and the next day he infuriated Jerusalem by indicating that Hamas should be brought into Middle East peace efforts.

Hopefully, the Russian president also conveyed to his Syrian counterpart Israel’s concerns about the Hizbullah military build-up and other tensions in the North. It would be a shame, after all, to think that Peres’s extravagant praise for Russia’s past and present was in vain.

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