My Word: A bash-ful Peres

When Peres pronounced Streisand’s voice “heavenly,” I got the impression that he felt he might have died and gone to paradise.

June 20, 2013 21:21
President Shimon Peres and Sharon Stone, 20 June 2013.

Peres and Sharon Stone 370. (photo credit: דניאל בר און, ShiloPro)


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There was no Marilyn Monroe doing a breathy “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” but not much else was missing from this week’s bash in honor of Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday. Anyway, when you have Barbra Streisand performing Avinu Malkeinu, anything else is an added bonus.

As Yediot Aharonot’s political commentator Nachum Barnea put it in a comment published on Wednesday, the morning after the love fest at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center: “In his speech at the end of the celebrations last night Peres said that Sonia, his late wife, taught him the meaning of modesty. I fear that the pupil Shimon Peres missed a few essential lessons.”

Barnea thought he might be the only one pinching himself as part of a reality check. But I also wondered whether this was the same Peres I used to see frequently when I covered the Knesset for The Jerusalem Post and he was earning the nickname “Loser” for serially failing to get elected to the top positions he so desired.

When Peres pronounced Streisand’s voice “heavenly,” I got the impression that he felt he might have died and gone to paradise.

Maybe he, too, secretly pinched himself to check that he really was the person to whom the superstars and world leaders were paying tribute.

I hope he didn’t think that the prayer “Our Father, our King” referred to him, but it would have been an easy mistake given the signs of cult worship taking place in the hall at the start of his presidential Facing Tomorrow conference that night.

The show of love was particularly extraordinary given that his most significant international achievement was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for his role in the Oslo Accords. Even ardent supporters of that peace process admit that it literally blew up in our faces in an unprecedented wave of Palestinian terror attacks.

Even Peres, the perennial optimist, has hinted that the Oslo peace process was a disappointment.

As a politician, he was not popular, particularly after the Likud came to power in 1977 and he swung to the Left. But his “stinking maneuver” in 1990 is still seen by political scientists as a bold, if unsuccessful, attempt to become prime minister.

One wonders if he would have become the nation’s darling had he not replaced the utterly disgraced Moshe Katsav, who spends his nights in a prison cell where he’s serving a sentence for sexual offenses, while President Peres is free to enjoy the presence of the girls and beautiful women who sing and dance for him.

In the Knesset, I found Peres frequently charming but not fond of criticism. When I once took exception to his description of Labor reuniting Jerusalem, pointing out that it was the apolitical IDF that could claim credit rather than a particular party, he was not pleased.

One of my strongest memories of Peres the politician stems from the first anniversary of Rabin’s assassination marked in the Knesset.

Ahead of the memorial session for the slain prime minister, I called various MKs to see if they had prepared speeches. Surprisingly, when I phoned Peres’s office, he picked up the phone in person and invited me to collect a copy of the text.

There were no aides in sight. I remember thinking how strange it was to see the man most thought would inherit the premiership, so alone.

It’s another reason I find his promotion to international superstar status so amazing.

But there’s no doubt that he has star quality and standing.

Looking through photos for a news story on June 17, the same day “the birthday boy” was being feted at a gala event at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot, I came across a picture of US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin looking glum at the G8 Summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Both later sent video greetings to the Israeli president and both would have enjoyed themselves more here – with former US president Bill Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair and a list of celebrities.

Blair likened Peres to the British monarch, saying: “We have our queen, and you have your Shimon.”

In some ways, I could see what he meant. For a start, just as the queen celebrates an official birthday which bears no relation to her date of birth, so too is Peres enjoying the festivities ahead of time.

How he is going to top this week’s events when it comes to the August 2 actual date is hard to imagine (but Peres being Peres, I suggest he start planning his centennial celebrations now).

He is a politician-turned-president, an incredibly sprightly “elder statesman”; the queen, and the royal family are born nobles and figurehead rulers. Peres, never one to accept defeat despite plenty of practice, only became elected president in 2007. Unlike the queen, he has a set term in office (which ends next year). I can hardly suggest he “return” to politics, as it seems doubtful he ever fully gave politics up. He certainly need not retire from public life, however.

A great future awaits him on the international lecture circuit.

For Peres is alive and kick starting all sorts of technological and social programs. And he has never stopped, in the words of Clinton’s favorite song, “thinking about tomorrow,” or dreaming of peace.

Only Peres could pull the crowd he did, literally from the movies, with Streisand, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone (all three of whom, rather touchingly, brought their sons). The world leaders and former leaders would have flocked to Jerusalem for no one else.

And this is why, despite my reservations, I admire this week’s mega party and, in the traditional felicitation, wish the celebrant “Ad 120!” – he should live to be 120.

I would rather the jet set (and their offspring) had turned up to mark Israel’s 65th anniversary two months ago – or that I could be sure they would flock in to mark our 70th, in five years time. But there is something uplifting in having a president whose hand the world’s movers and shakers cross continents to shake.

At a time when the country’s legitimacy is so often under attack, it is comforting that Israel’s No. 1 citizen is obviously not being boycotted.

Having a birthday bash is much better than the country being bashed for existing.

And, yes, even though I think that Peres is overly optimistic (note the Grad missile launched from Gaza in the direction of Ashkelon this week), it is nice to have something to look forward to. We haven’t lost the hope of 2,000 years – make that the hope of close to five millennia – to live freely, in peace.

If we give up that hope, we give up on the future.

While much of this troubled region revolted and bled, the biggest problem in the capital of the Jewish state were the traffic jams caused by the president’s visitors, the Jerusalem Formula Peace Road Show, and the soccer games being played at Teddy Stadium as part of the UEFA Under-21 European Championship.

Speaker after speaker interspersed the word “shalom” with “tikkun olam,” which in the opinion of one Israeli diplomat I know is virtually turning into a religion in its own right. I’m happy that “mending the world” counts among the country’s best exports, be it through medical, educational, technological or intellectual advances.

Happy birthday to you, Mr. President, and to all the People of Israel. In the words of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, may we be inscribed in the Book of Good Life.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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