Peres taking seat 298.88.
(photo credit: GPO)
If President Shimon Peres's 47-year term in the Knesset was long, his relationship with the Foreign Press Association in Israel has been even longer.
The FPA celebrated its jubilee year on Tuesday by inviting back Peres, who was the association's first speaker in 1957, to address the crowd of some 100 foreign journalists from around the globe.
Founding chairman Francis Ofner, who was the Israel correspondent for the London Observer, recalled in a memoir posted on the FPA Web site that for the organization's opening function, the FPA had decided to start not "with a heavyweight public figure, but a promising young official."
"The choice fell on Shimon Peres, then [former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion's director-general in the Ministry of Defense," he wrote. "He became internationally known the previous year. Peres had helped secure French Mystere fighter planes which were critical to Israel's success in the Sinai campaign."
When casting around for a 50th anniversary speaker, it was only natural that the FPA should once again choose that "promising young official," who, current FPA chairman Simon McGregor-Wood noted, has served in 12 cabinets, been prime minister three times (once as acting prime minister) and belonged to five political parties.
Peres, who was not yet president when planning for the event began, decided to host the FPA at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday after a series of circumstances delayed the event by several months.
In introducing Peres, McGregor-Wood noted that the FPA had come into being because "collective strength was needed to protect our interests and press freedom."
That situation has not changed - in fact, according to some FPA veterans, the need is greater today than in previous years. What has changed is the size and influence of the FPA, which now has some 460 members from 32 countries.
Peres has always valued the foreign press and has generally given it higher priority than the local media. During the week of his inauguration, he gave several interviews to foreign journalists - both print and electronic - but did not initially respond to the requests of Israeli journalists, who were also kept at a distance when he moved into Beit Hanassi. No journalists were allowed into the presidential compound, much less the actual building, and the only photographers permitted entry were those of the Government Press Office.
However, Tuesday saw a mix of foreign and local media, with the latter greatly outnumbered. Peres's audience included wire service representatives, as well as radio, television and print media journalists, collectively reaching out to the whole world.
Punctuating his remarks with aphorisms that prompted smiles of approval, Peres addressed some of his favorite topics, including the application of economic sanctions against Iran, and when someone asked his opinion on the remark by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that France needed to prepare for war with Iran, Peres came to the aid of his good friend, whom he had met only a week earlier, and said that without a military threat, economic measures would not make a strong enough impression.
A strong believer that economics are more important than politics, Peres, a former finance minister, declared with quiet pride that Israel's economy had done rather well, and that per capita income in Israel was double that of Saudi Arabia, "even if we don't have oil - which shows that even if you are oil-less, you are not penniless."
On Monday, Peres suggested that donor states, which over the past 10 years have been contributing a total of $1 billion per year to the Palestinians, should each approach five or six major companies in their respective countries to build industrial zones in the West Bank and Gaza, and thereby change the economic situation through the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.
Peres also addressed on Tuesday the contribution Israel could make to the world on environmental and energy issues and water production. He disclosed that Israel would be the first country to produce engine-less, battery driven cars that would not be sold, but would be leased out for $500 per month, including maintenance costs. He said that Israel was close to concluding an agreement with French, Jordanian and American investors, and estimated that if the project got off the ground, it would generate 50,000 jobs.
During the event, an Italian journalist reminded him that during his recent visit to Italy, he had said relations between Israel and Italy had never been better. The journalist could not understand the statement, considering that Italy had been going hand in hand with Hizbullah and had been asking Israel to talk to Hamas.
Without a moment's hesitation, Peres retorted that Italy had been the first country to send a military unit to southern Lebanon. Italy did not participate in the financial effort to support Iran, he added, and said Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi had told him that Italy had no intention of talking to Hamas - on the contrary, Italy has demanded that Hamas accede to the conditions set down by the Quartet. Peres also credited Italy as having had a role in Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi's change of policy.
Asked to explain his eternal optimism, Peres recalled that when he had been recruited by Ben-Gurion at age 20 to work in Hagana headquarters, there had been very few rifles and machine guns.
"We were outnumbered and outgunned" he said, and yet Israel never lost a war.
In those days, the Arab world was totally united against the state-in-the-making, he said. Today, "the Arab world is no longer totally united against us."
He had reason to be upbeat, he said, because five years ago, if anyone had told him that Ariel Sharon would support the idea of a Palestinian state, he would not have believed them. Referring to his union with Sharon, Peres said: "I joined him not because I changed. I joined him because he changed."
There is no solution without a flourishing, free, democratic and independent Palestinian state, Peres asserted. It will not resolve everything, he acknowledged, "but it's a good start."