It’s common knowledge that power corrupts, but in Israel, according to Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, there is a culture of corruption. Speaking on Tuesday after a New Year’s toast to the Jerusalem branch of the party at the Justice Club, Gabbay, who is a former Jerusalemite himself who lived in the capital till he was 32 years old, reeled off a list of high-ranking positions whose occupants were either charged and convicted or are under investigation for a litany of white-collar crimes. This is a culture that, if he ever becomes prime minister, he will set about eradicating, he said.
What is uppermost in his mind even before that is to find a way to reestablish national unity, starting with reconciliation within the party and reaching outward. “We cannot have national unity if we do not have unity among ourselves,” he said.
On the economic front, he wants to establish a system of fair wages and stipends, and he does not want to punish people who did not serve in the army by denying them access to the labor market. “If a person is capable of doing a job, he should be allowed to do it, whether he served in the army or not,” said Gabbay.
■ There were several events this week directly and indirectly connected with Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres. Of a direct nature was the conference on leadership and innovation that was held at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation on Wednesday with global business leaders as well as politicians and Jewish community leaders, and of course the diplomatic community, with which Peres had an abiding relationship.
Conspicuous by his absence at this event was US Ambassador David Friedman, who on Thursday hosted a Rosh Hashana reception at his residence in Herzliya Pituah. His predecessor Dan Shapiro did this every year before him.
■ The icing on the cake, as far as Peres events were concerned, was the presence at an evening event on Wednesday of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, 94, who was in fine form and who reminisced that he and Peres had met during Kissinger’s first visit to Israel in 1962.
“The country’s population was just over two million. Hostile military outposts lined the road to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem itself was partitioned into Arab and Israeli sectors. That this splintered territory had become a state at all was treated as a miracle by the more than 800,000 people which was all that comprised the population of Israel at the time. But miracles do not come to those who wait for them passively. The State of Israel born from faith could be sustained only by dedication and struggle. Israel from its very beginning has been obliged to build itself amongst neighbors who considered its creation an insult a religious obligation and concessions to it as having existential dimensions.
“So Israel’s second miracle was that it survived. It did, so Shimon wrote in a private letter to me, because of the dedication of its young people, among them, his son, so he told me proudly, who had started flying in the air force the very date of that letter 40 years ago.” Kissinger was referring to Chemi Peres, the youngest of the three Peres siblings, who today chairs the Peres Center. Kissinger described the letter as “a particularly meaningful memory, then moved fast-forward to 2014, when Shimon Peres said: “I know of no other country on the face of the earth or throughout history which has amazed and surprised so much: gathering in its people, making its wilderness bloom, fighting back in seven wars, bringing a language back to life. We’re a people first and foremost that rebuilt itself time and again.”
Then, going back again in time, Kissinger recalled that he had been introduced to Peres by David Ben-Gurion, “and Shimon briefed me then on his effort to acquire from all over the world the weapons to enable Israel to defend itself.” The US was not yet then a supplier, and Israel had to develop the capacity to defend itself inside Israel to an even greater extent, said Kissinger, adding that he and Peres began to work together closely in the aftermath of the 1973 (Yom Kippur) war, in the pursuit of peace – Peres as defense minister, and Kissinger as security adviser, then as secretary of state.
“Shimon and I were comrades on a journey characterized by hopes and intentions, moments of elation and incremental on the way to disengagements – agreements with Egypt and Syria, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. We built a friendship of a lifetime. When a political agreement with Egypt seemed stymied by disagreement and some issues, Shimon took me aside and said, ‘Please don’t interpret what we’re doing as opposition to peace with the Arab world. When we have achieved security, we will work, we will dedicate ourselves to peace. And I will do that for the rest of my life,’” Kissinger recalled.
In one of his letters to Kissinger, Peres wrote: “I have always thought that history has made our generation be truly great: the obtainment of independence, the ingathering of exiles, the achievement of peace. For the time being we have achieved the first one only. As for the third one, it’s still a great statement which is neither historical nor hasty, but which carries with it the vision and courage to make daring decisions.”
Kissinger said that for decades Peres proclaimed that peace with the Arab world was an imperative, not a policy choice. In another letter, as a voice from Israel’s founding generation, Peres had written: “Even if it seems as though there is no partner for peace, and I believe that there is, what serves us better is leading the peace process, even if there are Arab forces who seek another confrontation inspired that Israel should be convicted to prevent it.”
Although he had occasional doubts about whether Peres’s dreams could be realized, Kissinger said that he had always been moved by Peres’s eloquence. “And I admired a region whose borders were established by negotiation, supported by international law and sustained by the devotion of all of its inhabitants to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Let me be honest with you. My affection and admiration for Shimon existed side by side with occasional doubts about the feasibility of his vision on a foreseeable timescale. But I considered it a message of universal hope essential for all of us to finding the courage of striving from intermediate stages of the road to peace.” He described Peres’s vision as “a noble effort that circumstances imposed. All great achievements had been dreams before they were reality. And Shimon was the dreamer for our generation.
“In 2012,” Kissinger continued, “Shimon telephoned to tell me that I had been selected to receive Israel’s just-created presidential Medal of Distinction, and that in light of our common history and common efforts he hoped that he could present the first one to me. At the actual event I mentioned that nothing would have meant as much to my parents as the ceremony in which the president of Israel recognized their son’s goal in the quest for peace conducted on behalf of this country and its people.
“Shimon and I met for the last time in Toronto in May 2016. The two of us spoke at a forum, but before it we met privately. It was an occasion for now-veterans of long ago battles to reflect on how we had sustained ourselves, each in his own way, by a vision of peace and a balance we had tried to strike between idealism and pragmatism, to keep idealism from spilling into emotion and to prevent pragmatism from sliding into stagnation.
“Shimon was complex, a pragmatist and an optimist, a soldier and a poet, a founding father of Israel’s defense forces who went on to become Israel’s fiercest advocate of reconciliation and peace. Today, Israel owes much to Shimon’s vision. For me, it was a privilege to be his friend. It was an honor to be his companion.”
■ Earlier in the week, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. announced that next year it will open a research and development branch at the Advanced Technologies Park in Beersheba adjacent to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Peres was the initiator of Israel’s defense industries when it was difficult for the nascent state to obtain military equipment from abroad. He laid the foundations for the aerospace industry and the electronics industry, upgraded the military industry and founded Rafael – the Armaments Development Authority (now known as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.). He was appointed by Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, to spearhead the effort to establish Israel’s nuclear reactors, in Dimona and Nahal Sorek.
Peres always regarded Ben-Gurion as his lifelong mentor and never tired of talking about him. One of Ben-Gurion’s key ambitions was to populate the Negev and see the desert bloom. This ambition is gradually being realized. It was given a boost with the movement of army bases to the country’s South, and will gain new impetus when Rafael opens its R&D branch, which will employ hundreds of engineers.
On Tuesday evening Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shimon Hefetz
, who spent 15 years as military adjutant to presidents Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav
and Peres, and before that as military aide to defense ministers, launched his book Secrets from Within at the Latrun Memorial to the Armored Corps. Keynote speaker was Supreme Court judge Hanan Melcer, who spoke on the basic law of the army.
Coincidentally, the ink was barely dry on the decision taken earlier that day by the Supreme Court striking down the 2015 government policy relating to conscription of haredim. From among the large crowd, there was a spontaneous burst of applause when Melcer spoke of the new Supreme Court decision which overturned the right of exemption. Among the approving crowd were former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi
, and former military correspondent Tali Lipkin-Shahak
, who is the widow of another former chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.