Yitzhak Ben-Zvi is hardly remembered today. But yesteryear Israel's second president was sincerely beloved - a genuine man of the people, despite his imposing past as a true Second Aliya activist (as distinct from numerous prattling poseurs), to say nothing of his venerable scholarship (which yielded 20 volumes on the history of diverse Jewish communities and the unbroken chain of Jewish presence in the Land of Israel).
Ben-Zvi was the only president elected to three consecutive terms (though he died six months into the third in 1963).
His authentic folksiness, accessibility and warmth endeared him to the citizenry, but most of all it was his personal unaffected modesty. Ben-Zvi insisted on dwelling in an austere wooden prefab. Two larger wooden huts in the same courtyard served for receptions and offices.
In hindsight Ben-Zvi can be described as a "naive socialist," one who believed he should be as good as his word and practice the simple ways he preached to others.
Shimon Peres, though resplendent in socialist pretensions, is a socialist of another style. If he's elected Israel's next president, the presidential residence would become the sumptuous hub of machination and simultaneously a magnet for jet-set glitterati from all corners of the globe. Unlike Ben-Zvi, the icon of humility, Peres is the indubitable darling of the world's trendiest and most beautiful headliners.
Golda Meir, another old-time icon of unfussy straightforwardness, understood why. Years ago she explained to me the reason her name was always accompanied by adjectives like "hard-line," "intransigent" or "inflexible."
"It's so easy to win the world's love," she observed. "Just do as they wish. If you don't, they'll hate you." Golda preferred to be hated and diagnosed as hopelessly afflicted with "the Masada Complex." She shrugged: "What can I do? The world isn't enamored of the Jewish national cause. The more you insist on Jewish interests, the less popular you'll be, and vice versa."
Over the decades, her nemesis Shimon Peres - to whom she referred with an ever-evolving variety of pejoratives - kept proving her point with a vengeance. His "New Middle East," Oslo subterfuge and derivative Nobel Peace Prize earned him prodigious accolades from chic international cheerleaders.
PERES PURSUED furtive assignations during the tenures of two premiers, behind both of whose backs he conspired in violation of every conceivable democratic principle. Three years pre-Oslo, in 1990 - when Israel was governed by the second unity coalition under Yitzhak Shamir - Peres (already then not for the first time) engaged in unauthorized freelance negotiations.
When Shamir rejected Peres's ultimatum (hatched with the infamous James Baker), Peres plotted to bring down Shamir's government, which he did. To Peres's exasperation, however, he subsequently failed to put together a substitute coalition. Yitzhak Rabin, who branded Peres "an unrelenting underminer," dubbed this "the stinking maneuver."
Ironically, when Rabin later won the premiership, recidivist Peres sidetracked him too, as he did Shamir. The difference was that Shamir fired Peres, whereas Rabin fell for the Osloite chimera.
How Peres would exploit presidential office, given his past predilections, boggles the mind. A Peres presidency would be an invitation to intrigue. It's safe to assume he wouldn't make do with a figurehead role, but would hyperactively preside over a parallel government and spawn an unimaginable surfeit of inventive visions, plans and proposals. Their common denominator would be the increasing Palestinization of this land and dangerous compromising of what Golda called "the Jewish national interest."
Jewish interests are uncomfortably constricting for our leading luminary in Europe's cosmopolitan ambiance. Peres's star status only further fuels his enthusiasm for mischief. Unlike any Israeli honcho, he basks in the glow of sophisticated approval abroad, is wined, dined and eagerly courted. Remember his grandiose 80th birthday bash in 2003 (at the Mann Auditorium, no less)? It was an international Who's Who roll call. Celebrating with him were Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, the presidents of Germany, Poland, the Ivory Coast, the foreign ministers of Germany, Greece, Hungary, Spain and too many more to mention. The list is longer than this column.
And it's not just acclaimed elder statesmen who craved his company. Super-model Naomi Campbell came, as did U2 soloist Bono, Sharon Stone of Basic Instinct fame and other ambassadors of glamour and glitz to emphasize how cool and hip the ever-youthful Shimon remains.
Peres's unrivaled reputation among foreign nabobs is perhaps the only residue fringe benefit from his Oslo stratagem. All other Oslo fruits are bitter. Some 2,000 Israelis were murdered, and thousands maimed for life. Stretches of historical homeland were relinquished and strategic assets surrendered to genocidal enemies whom Peres imported here by the tens of thousands from Tunis. Arab aspirations to replace Israel and the delegitimization of Israel's very existence are tolerated as never previously in the valued venues of Peres's social conquests.
Peres conferred respectability upon Fatah and ushered in Hamas rampages. In pre-Oslo days there was less call for targeted strikes, roadblocks, security fences and suchlike image-tarnishing measures. There was more peace prior to Peres's peace.
Is that why he's a perennial political flop? Peres indeed lost every national election, which explains the (alas, dud) attempt to design special legislative circumventions for him to skew the vote for president. He deserves special breaks - after all, no other candidate can boast Peres's boundless celebrity in traditional haunts of anti-Israeli bon-ton.
He deserves kudos for proving incontrovertibly that pleasing world opinion has its perks. Flamboyancy-deficient Ben-Zvi and Golda couldn't dream of the sort of overseas esteem lavished on Peres. No wonder there were no gaudy and flashy birthday shindigs for them - not that they'd have coveted anything of the sort.