It is obvious to the Foreign Ministry, officials there said Sunday, that President Shimon Peres will take on various diplomatic roles. According to one ministry source, this has been the case over the last 15 years, regardless of which position Peres has held. "Peres is a one-man foreign ministry," the official said, adding that this was not necessarily a bad thing. "This has been the situation for some time, and we are used to it." The official said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had largely been pushed out of the "loop" by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, so she will not necessarily feel any of her authority whittled away by Peres.
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Livni said in a television interview after Peres's swearing-in ceremony that she welcomed Peres as president, and in fact was one of the first to push forward the idea earlier in the year, against those who warned that he would chip away at her authority.
"If anyone is likely to feel Peres's presence, it is Olmert," one Foreign Ministry official said. "He is the one dealing with the diplomacy that Peres is interested in. But Olmert backed him consistently, and Peres owes Olmert a debt. There is no reason for Peres to do anything against Olmert's interests."
On the contrary, the official said Olmert could use Peres and his elevated stature in the world to push forward his own diplomatic agenda.
National Union MK Zvi Hendel accused Peres of starting his presidency on the wrong foot by telling The Associated Press on Sunday that Israel would have to give up land.
"Even before entering his job, he is doing everything to divide the nation into sectors and playing into the hands of his friends, the murderers of the PLO," Hendel said. "At a time when bombs continue to explode, he says we have to grant the murderers an additional prize by uprooting settlements in Judea and Samaria. I pity him and I hope he doesn't think the presidency gives him immunity."
In an interview with The Associated Press prior to his inauguration, Peres said peace with the Palestinians would require Israel to withdraw from significant pieces of the West Bank. "We have to get rid of the territories," he said, insisting that this was the majority view in Israel today.
He said he would use the presidency to "encourage" the government to take steps for peace, offer advice to the nation's leaders and "speak to the people. "In public life, you don't use swords, you use words," he said. "You talk to people, you have dialogue. That's what I'm going to do. I don't have any force but the force of my conviction," he said.
Although his vision of a "new Middle East" never materialized, Peres has not given up on it. Throughout his interview with The Associated Press, he refused to dwell on the past, insisting on discussing future projects like ending global warming and poverty, and making vague references to "the cosmos" and improving the world for youth.
Peres said he would be willing to meet a president of Iran if it would advance the cause of peace, but not the current leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination. Peres noted the long history of ties between Jewish and Persian leaders from Biblical times and until Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
One Foreign Ministry official said that Peres - who is expected to travel widely as president, just as he did in his previous positions - would actually increase the work for the ministry. He will be accompanied in all his visits abroad by the local Israeli ambassador, and will need the staff work of the ministry.
Beyond the narrow interests of the ministry, the official said, there was no questioning Peres's ability to explain Israel's position abroad, as well as the value of his wide popularity overseas.
Olmert was full of praise for Peres at Sunday's cabinet meeting, saying that if academic research would be done into the characteristics needed by the president of Israel, Peres would be the model.
"This is a big day for the State of Israel. It is an important day for our public life," Olmert said. "It is possible to say he is one of the most prominent people in the world; there is respect for him that radiates on Israel as well. It is an honor for Israel that Shimon Peres is its president."
One senior official in the Prime Minister's Office, when asked if there was concern that Peres would chart an independent foreign policy, said that Olmert and Peres would work in close coordination. Israel, the official said, "cannot ask for a better ambassador."
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.