Diplomatic lessons, in politics and sports

The seven years in which I’ve accompanied President Shimon Peres in an official capacity as his adviser have, for lack of a better word, whizzed by.

President Shimon Peres kicks the ball to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi at the opening of a soccer clinic with Arab and Jewish children at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv in August 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Shimon Peres kicks the ball to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi at the opening of a soccer clinic with Arab and Jewish children at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv in August 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The seven years in which I’ve accompanied President Shimon Peres in an official capacity as his adviser have, for lack of a better word, whizzed by.
But in all this time, there are three significant moments that have stood out; not for Yoram Dori the civil servant, but for Yoram Dori the person.
ON JANUARY 27, 2010, Peres gave a speech on the occasion of international Holocaust Remembrance Day at the German Bundestag. I had made it clear during preliminary discussions that the visit must include such a speech by the president at the home of the German constitutional and legislative body. This visit brought out many emotions for me. As the birthplace of Nazism, I felt that having the president of the Jewish state – whose family had been murdered by the Nazis – speak in the German Reichstag Building was the right thing to do.
For the rest of my life, I will remember the opening moments of the speech. Peres and his staff, including myself, were respectfully seated in a section on the right side of the hall. A group of Israeli Holocaust survivors, Peres’s guests of honor, were seated directly across from us. Right below us sat the members of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. When Peres was called up to the podium to give his speech, he stood next to the microphone and in his clear and confident bass voice, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish: “Yitgadal, v’yitkadash shmey raba” (May His great name be magnified and sanctified).
As Peres began saying the first word, yitgadal, I put a kippa on my head and stood up, as is customary when someone is reciting kaddish. As soon as the group of survivors saw me standing, they too got to their feet.
And within a second, every member of the German parliament had also stood up.
And that’s how it came to pass that the president of Israel, the Jewish state, said kaddish in memory of the six million Jews as all the members of the Bundestag and Bundesrat and the German chancellor stood and listened respectfully. Tears filled my eyes. This was a sight I will never forget.
DURING HIS term as president Peres had quite a few political achievements. He held hundreds – if not thousands – of meetings with world leaders. He held sit-downs with numerous heads of Middle East countries – some of which were public, some secretive. He met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, with now-ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the emir of Qatar and many more.
But the one meeting I would like to highlight is Peres’s visit to Turkey in November 2007 – the Turkey of president Abdullah Gul and now Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The welcome ceremony, honor guard and warm reception at the Turkish presidential Palace were all impressive. The excited applause of Peres’s speech in the parliament was also somewhat surprising.
But what sticks out in my mind are the events that occurred behind the scenes, which led to Peres, Gul and Abbas signing a framework agreement to establish a joint industrial zone in the West Bank.
Uri Ben-Porat, Peres’s economic adviser, and I invested quite a few hours and much intellectual effort trying to reach a consensus with the other parties. The Palestinians, as usual, tried to achieve political goals, and the Foreign Ministry didn’t make our lives any easier either. It put forth proposals which, had we shown them to the Palestinians, would have blown up the talks completely.
Peres interfered very little, as was his custom; he didn’t continuously check up on us. Quite the opposite – he gave us the space we needed to get our work done. The knowledge that he trusted us to complete the work competently was empowering.
We worked day and night in an effort to find the perfect wording for our proposals. We also ate extraordinary amounts of Turkish food – I had stuffed grape leaves and Turkish yogurt coming out of my ears while we were in the midst of negotiations. The only thing the two sides were in complete agreement about was Italian food, which we enjoyed together at an Italian restaurant in Ankara. Over pizza, pasta and cappuccino (Uri and I paid for the meal out of our own pockets) we were able to achieve the desired breakthrough.
We wore our fingers to the bone and carried out verbal acrobatics, and as a result of the excellent mediation by Turkish negotiator Güven Sak, were able to reach an agreement that was signed in an impressive ceremony in Ankara by the three leaders. More than six years have passed since then, and a subsequent agreement has yet to be signed.
IN ADDITION to advising on political affairs, I have also filled the role of unofficial adviser for sports affairs – mainly as Peres’s personal commentator for national league playoffs in football and basketball, which the president must attend. But during the 2007-08 season, I learned a very important lesson about how difficult it is to be emotionally involved with a sports team while still managing to fulfill my role as presidential adviser.
In this instance, my support of one team collided head on with my proper functioning as a state official.
The final match was between Hapoel Tel Aviv (the team I backed) and Beitar Jerusalem (the team I loathed – to say the least). The game reached the stage of penalty shots from 11 meters. I think my heart skipped a beat as we waited for the shots to be made. The score remained tied throughout all five of the first kicks.
As I sat next to the president, biting my nails, I made superhuman efforts not to shout out in joy when my team scored and not to curse when the opponent scored, because this was what my job required of me.
In addition, I had to answer Peres’s questions, which at the time seemed to me banal at best.
And then came the worst moment of the entire game, Beitar scored. Reuven Oved, my neighbors’ son, had run for the ball – but tragically missed. Beitar had won the game, I was heartbroken and battered with disappointment, but I still had to accompany Peres onto the playing field.
As his escort, it was expected of me to smile at the Beitar managers and fans who were dancing with joy, shake hands with the players – drunk from champagne – and stand in the midst of thousands of Beitar Jerusalem fans singing and shouting in pure happiness.
As I dragged myself after Peres, who skipped towards the podium where the cup was being awarded, I recalled what he had once told me after one of his election failures, when I asked him how he dealt with the humiliation of losing. Peres, with absolute confidence, answered me with a reply that fit the current situation, too: “Yoram,” he said, “remember that in life there is always another chance.”
And Peres was right – indeed, that moment did arrive and Hapoel won three consecutive cups after Beitar won one more year.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.