Analysis: President Peres, it's going to be quite a ride

Though he'll turn 84 next month, the incoming president remains in sparkling form.

Peres 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Peres 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
As he does in most every speech, incoming President Shimon Peres told his audience at a conference on the future of the Jewish people last Thursday that he knows he isn't supposed to discuss divisive political issues. Nonetheless, the irrepressible former prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and most every other minister besides, couldn't help himself. When you've been handling controversial matters of state for more than 60 years, it's evidently hard to lose the habit. Thus Peres declared - in what was the closing address of a three-day Conference on the Future of the Jewish People - that there now exists "a rare opportunity to make peace" and that "we shouldn't miss it." We should pursue it, he elaborated, first by seeking to improve relations with our neighbors, and especially economic relations. Once the economic interaction was healthy - and he referred vaguely to a purported Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian readiness to extend a vast joint economic "valley" along much of the country's eastern edge - it would be possible to move on to demarcating permanent borders. Peres's comments were sufficiently nonspecific, and his audience sufficiently supportive and exhausted by their dialogue, for his speech to pass without partisan political objection. But it did appear to indicate that Peres will be pressing his longtime vision of an economically driven New Middle East as assiduously from Beit Hanassi as he has done down the years from his various cabinet and opposition posts. If so, his presidency is going to be some ride. Though he'll turn 84 next month, the incoming president remains in sparkling form. Considerably late for Thursday's event at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, he immediately got what had been a tetchy audience laughing with an appropriate joke. Decades ago, he recalled, he'd been in a car driven by Moshe Dayan that was pulled over for speeding. The traffic cop gently upbraided the general, telling him he was risking his life and that of his passenger Peres. "Well, officer," Peres recalled Dayan as responding. "I've only got one eye. So I can't watch the road and the speedometer. Which would you prefer that I look at?!" As ever, in his speech, Peres was full of clever aphorisms that sometimes seemed rather less wise when they sunk in. He asserted, for instance, that Israel had no need for improved public relations, just an improved "source." By this, he explained, he meant that if Israeli ingenuity could continue to trailblaze hi-tech, agriculture and global warming solutions, the world's media would write and screen wonderful things about us. In that light, he declared, furthermore, he was hopeful that Israel would soon be a nation of cars run solely on battery power. Despite the limited life of batteries, such a solution was ideal for our small nation, he quipped, since there really wasn't very far for us to drive. Where the incoming president was deadly serious was on Iran's nuclear program. "If terrorists get nuclear weapons, the world would become ungovernable," he said. "World leaders don't have a choice but to prevent it before it is too late. We have years, not decades." He went on to say that he truly didn't know which would happen first: whether Islamic extremism would go bankrupt or its leadership would attain a world-threatening nuclear capability. That kind of public acknowledgement of so existential an uncertainty, if made at a higher profile event than this Jewish People Policy Planning Institute conference, would probably not have gone down well with the political leadership. It would also likely have drawn international headlines. But then again, one imagines that Peres, even as president, has every intention of still making headlines.