Speculation was rampant at the president’s annual Succot open house festivities on Monday, that some of the guests would voice their objections to the prisoner swap being orchestrated for abducted soldier Gilad Schalit.
There were expectations of a protest demonstration during President Shimon Peres’s address to the crowd. And indeed there was – but it had nothing to do with the kidnapped soldier.
Veteran Black Panther Reuven Abergil, together with a handful of his supporters, had arrived early and secured seats near the stage. While Peres was speaking they stood up waving banners and called for social justice and public housing.
They were promptly removed by security guards who escorted them off the premises, but they continued to shout as they were led out of the compound.
Voices in the crowd responded that this was neither the time nor the
place for such a protest. Peres himself said that they had a right to
express their pain, but that he was angry over their outburst.
Because there were so many people gathered on the lawns of the
President’s Residence, Peres gave the same speech twice – once for the
10 a.m. crowd, and the second at 11:15 a.m.
On both occasions there appeared to be a consensus regarding the
decision to exchange more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one
Israeli soldier. The crowd cheered and applauded at the mention of
Schalit’s name, especially when Peres said that the whole nation was
eagerly awaiting the arrival of a special guest in the succa.
He was speaking metaphorically, but the crowd went wild and was equally
enthusiastic when Peres lauded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for
initially making the decision to bring Schalit home, and the government
for taking collective responsibility in endorsing it.
There were also cheers when Peres praised the Schalit family for facing every obstacle with unshakable determination.
Though obviously delighted by the reaction of the crowd, Peres, who
usually spends a lot of time speaking to guests and posing for photos,
made only cursory appearances on this occasion.
He was too busy finalizing the paperwork for the release of prisoners
ahead of Schalit’s homecoming, and early in the morning had told the
media that everything would be ready on time.
Peres shared some of his own excitement about the expected day when
Schalit will be reunited with his parents, siblings and grandparents.
“It’s a one time event with a lot of hope and lot of trepidation,” he
said, alluding to the price paid by Israel to bring home a native son.
Asked why it couldn’t have been done sooner, and why Israeli
intelligence had been unable to pinpoint Schalit’s location, Peres
replied that Israel has confronted many problems, but it also has many
successes to its credit.
He said he is constantly surprised that while there are committees of
inquiry to probe the cause of the problems, there are never committees
of inquiry to investigate the reasons for success.
It’s high time that this was done, he said, “so that we can achieve a greater balance in our perspective of history.”
This year’s Succot celebrations at the President’s Residence were
dedicated to Gilad Schalit, who as a lone soldier, said Peres, had
prompted the greatest test of values in the annals of Israel.
Alluding to the consensus that had been built up around Schalit, Peres
said that the nation was united in praying for his welfare in the hope
that he would come safe and sound to his home and to his country.
The safety of every soldier is no less important than the safety of the
entire nation, said Peres. Israel would not have come in to being
without the heroism of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, he
underscored. Peres doubted that Israel would be able to exist without
the extensive and comprehensive defense system in which its soldiers act
with both courage and wisdom.
Peres was not so euphoric as to forget the anguish of families who have lost loved ones to terror.
“We must embrace them all,” he said, adding that they will never be able to escape the agonies they suffer.
But what was paramount right now, he insisted, is that Schalit be restored to his home, his family and his people.
Peres did not devote the whole of his address to Schalit. He also spoke
of the magnificent scientific and agricultural products on display as
well as other exhibits through the cooperative efforts of the Ministries
for Science and Technology, Agriculture, Environmental Protection and
Peres waxed enthusiastic over Israel’s achievements in science and
agriculture, saying that they were among the best in the world. He was
also impressed by the exhibition of works of art, particularly keys,
coins, paper clips, watch faces, etc., which had been recycled as
collages by autistic and intellectually challenged people from different
parts of the country.
“Their creativity far outweighs their limitations,” said Peres.