Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, to guarantee political support in time of need, President Shimon Peres said on Tuesday at the annual memorial ceremony for deceased presidents and prime ministers.
The ceremony, held at Beit Hanassi on the first day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, which marks the new year for kings according to ancient Jewish tradition, each year honors the memory and legacy of a different president and a different prime minister through the President’s Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize for the best books about the two people being memorialized.
As a rule, the president makes a speech about the deceased president chosen for that year, and the prime minister delivers an address about the deceased prime minister selected.
This year, after watching videos on the lives of Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Golda Meir prepared by the Israel Information Center, Peres announced that while it was important to delve into the past, continuity was no less important, especially in light of the fact that prime ministers are also parents.
He explained that he had relieved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the task of delivering an address because Netanyahu had to take a helicopter to Kiryat Shmona, where his younger son Avner was competing in the National Bible Quiz. Saying that he was aware of Netanyahu’s tight schedule, Peres said that it was quite understandable for the prime minister to keep looking at his watch and to leave when he felt it was necessary. Netanyahu insisted on staying until Peres completed his speech. He then left amid a flurry of good luck wishes.
Peres, who knew both Ben Zvi and Meir very well, spoke of the foundations they had laid for national leadership and of the crucial decisions early leaders of the state had to face.
He described Ben Zvi as a president who had conquered the hearts of the nation through his humility, wisdom and deep respect for all humanity.
“He served the nation with extraordinary restraint and skill,” Peres said.
The president also spoke of the unique relationship, which he called “an intellectual partnership,” between Ben Zvi and Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion.
“Ben Zvi researched the history of our people and examined the antiquities of our land. Ben Gurion always looked to the future.”
Golda Meir was the first and so far the only woman prime minister of Israel.
“She brought with her stability, strength and responsibility,” said Peres. “She believed that she represented justice without any need to justify herself.”
It was no secret that Golda was not favorably disposed towards Peres. She was irked by his manner of working, particularly by his efforts to create a network of special relationships between Israel and France.
Peres said that while he was sorry to have displeased her by not going through Quai d’Orsay channels, he did not for one moment regret what he had done.
“I remain convinced that this was the only sure way to guarantee a special collaboration with France, and the end justified the means,” he said.
Although he and Golda did not see eye-to-eye on many issues, Peres said he always respected her leadership, especially after seeing it in action in 1946 when he and Moshe Dayan were sent to represent the younger generation at the Zionist Congress in Basel.
There he witnessed a stormy debate over the Biltmore Program, which called for a Jewish commonwealth rather than a Jewish-Arab federation, with head-on clashes between Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, who had opposing points of view. The dispute threatened the unity of Mapai, with Ben Gurion and Eliezer Kaplan (later Israel’s first finance minister) attacking each other in a highly unprecedented manner and indulging in a lot of name-calling.
Golda happened to be chairing the meeting at which these exchanges were taking place, and because she ruled with an iron fist, she prevented an explosion and preserved the unity of the party, said Peres.
Her unswerving belief in the Zionist cause brought enormous pride to Israel and the Jewish people, Peres continued.
Leaders then were no less subjected to criticism than those of today, said Peres, adding that in hindsight, many of the painful decisions they made – even those on territorial concession and risking lives – showed tremendous courage and vision.
Whatever the situation, he underscored, Israel had always given priority to peace prospects, a challenge that continues to confront today’s leadership.
The President’s Prize was divided between political historian Prof. Yaron Harel of Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Michael Corinaldi, who has devoted his life to legal battles on behalf of rejected minorities, such as Ethiopian immigrants, descendants of the Portuguese Marranos, Seventh-Day Adventists, Samarians and Karaites.
An honorable mention was given to Dr. Zvi Tzameret, who for 27 years, from 1983 to 2010, served as director of the Ben Zvi Institute, which he turned into one of the country’s most important cultural treasures.
The Prime Minister’s Prize went to Prof. Meron Medzini, who literally grew up in Golda’s kitchen. His mother Regina had been a childhood friend of Golda’s in Milwaukee, and the friendship had developed into a lifelong bond that extended into the next generation. Medzini, a former director of the Government Press Office, was Meir’s spokesman when she was Prime Minister.
An honorary mention was given to historian Dr. Yehudit Reifen-Ronen,
who for 20 years was in charge of the Golda Meir Memorial Trust, where
she was responsible for setting up a Golda Meir archive and information
center for researchers.
Speaking on behalf of all the
prizewinners, Medzini, like Peres, referred to the difficulties in the
decision-making process, and said that the founding leaders of the
state had to weigh their ethical consciences against political reality.