Peres, Netanyahu, Iran, and Uncle Sam

"Anybody but Peres" was the slogan in the Knesset when the Members were choosing between presidential candidates Shimon Peres and Moshe Katzav in 2000. Katzav received 63 votes to Peres'' 57. Some MKs who had promised their support to Peres voted for Katzav. 

Seven years later, it was clear that "Anybody but Peres" had put a rapist in the Presidential Mansion. The hope was that an older Peres might be less inclined to use the presidency for his own political agenda.

Israel''s presidency was modeled after the British monarchy, with more ceremonial than practical duties. The country''s first president, Chaim Weizmann, complained that the only place he could put his nose was into his handkerchief.

Last week Peres celebrated his 89th birthday, and got headlines for a controversy that has been brewing for some time.

The lead paragraph in a New York Times article

"Shimon Peres, Israel’s president and elder statesman, spoke out Thursday against the prospect of a lone Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a message that contradicts the hawkish, go-it-alone line emanating from the offices of Israel’s prime minister and defense minister."

The essence of his comments

“Now, it is clear to us that we cannot do it alone . . . We can delay . . . It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

It should be no surprise to those following Israel that Peres is on the side of the angels. Friday''s headline on the front page of Israel Hayom quoted individuals close to the Prime Minister saying, "We were lucky that Begin did not listen to Peres in ''81." Comments from similar sources (perhaps a journalistic convention to allow the Prime Minister to avoid a direct confrontation with the President) said that Peres not only erred in connection with the attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility, but also in his support for the Oslo Accords, and for the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza. Others said that the Prime Minister was angry and disappointed that Peres had departed from the presidential function and was expressing himself on a controversial matter of policy. An unnamed minister said that Peres'' statements were "Very serious . . . a challenge to political office holders. . . at the end the political authorities will decide, not the president, who should remain representative and not political."

Peres is not the first of Israel''s presidents to depart from the image of ceremonial figures who shy away from political controversies. Chaim''s nephew Ezer had a stormy presidency (1993-2000), drawing criticism from the right for his initiatives in promoting a peace process with the Palestinians and withdrawal from the Golan. He also stepped over the line about accepting money from individuals with a likely interest in his influence, and resigned the presidency under public pressure.

Peres has been an asset to the politicians as well as an annoyance. He outranks all other Israeli public figures in his international standing. The Prime Minister has employed him as a distinguished emissary, more likely to be welcome than himself in foreign capitals.

Ha''aretz led off its Friday Internet edition quoting a former head of military intelligence who was even more pointed than Peres. As a retired professional, this person might also be said to have wandered improperly onto the political patch. However, this is Israel, which operates by its own flexible rules. Moreover, this former professional has joined a number of his former colleagues in speaking out on this issue.

"It is impossible to rely on Netanyahu and Barak. They are spreading hysteria and panic."

If Israelis with the authority to decide on such things are serious about attacking Iran, the continued discussion in the most public of venues is not the best way to do it. Debating a fateful decision is one thing, but advertising intentions about a military attack is something else.

On the other hand, if the intention is to spur the United States to action, the demonstration of nervous Jews arguing about a pre-emptive strike against the possibility of a nuclear Holocaust, and accusing one another of panicking in the context of an American presidential election, may be just what the doctor ordered.

It is far from the capacity of simple citizen observers to know what is serious dispute and what is performance at the pinnacle of Israeli politics. It may all be meant to get the Americans into action by suggesting that Israel might pull them in at an inconvenient time if they don''t move with greater resolution.

I brought along my American passport during our recent trip to Scandinavia, against the prospect of an attack, the resulting stoppage of all passenger air traffic into a war zone, and the need to call in some of those refuge offers that we heard during previous crises. Now that we have made it back home, Varda is inquiring about the acquisition of gas masks.

During the crisis with Iraq in the early 1990s there was a national campaign to equip us all with masks and the antidote atropine, along with instructions on how to seal rooms with plastic sheeting, masking tape, and wet towels under the door. The gas didn''t come, perhaps because Israel was said to have warned Iraq that its response would be nuclear. Some years later the government recalled all the mask kits, and has been confused and confusing about replacing them. The mass distribution is expensive, and an official report suggests that they may not be all that effective. A threat of nuclear retaliation might do the same job more efficiently.