The Peres peregrinations

The adventures of Israel’s premier globe-trotting public servant

Peres Mandela 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Peres Mandela 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
New ambassadors, especially the young ones, are often confounded when presenting their credentials to President Shimon Peres to hear him reminiscence about former leaders of their respective countries. In more than six decades as a public servant, Israel’s No. 1 citizen has been there, done that – and moreover met an extraordinary number of world leaders who have made and are making history.
For the purpose of this interview, Peres was presented with a list of all the countries that have embassies in Israel. He was asked to peruse a list – which had the names of more than 80 countries – and to name the ones that he has not visited. He wasn’t quite certain whether he had been to Sri Lanka when it was still Ceylon, which left only four countries that he has not yet set foot in. These are Cambodia, Eritrea, Liberia and the Philippines. Of the countries which have diplomatic relations, but nonresident ambassadors, he’s been to Singapore.
Among the countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, he has been to Morocco and Indonesia, as well as others which he preferred not to name.
Here are some highlights that Israel’s No. 1 ambassador recalled as he sat down with The Jerusalem Post.
Although Vietnam and Israel established diplomatic relations in July 1993, contacts between the two countries extend much further. When Din Xuan Luu, Vietnam’s first resident ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to Peres in July 2009, the president congratulated the Vietnamese government on its decision to establish an embassy in Israel.
He then told him of a meeting in 1946 between Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion and North Vietnam’s Politburo chairman Ho Chi Minh, when both were in Paris and staying at the Royal Monceau Hotel.
The two had developed a friendship and Ho Chi Minh had offered Ben-Gurion the opportunity to proclaim a Jewish government in exile in North Vietnam and to establish its headquarters there. Peres paid a state visit to Vietnam in November 2011.
United States US president Ronald Reagan was a good friend, and the two had a pact that each would tell the other an anti-Communist joke whenever they met.
Reagan once told Peres that in the zoo in Moscow, a wolf and a lamb had been placed in the same cage. When someone asked the zookeeper how this was possible, the reply was: “Easy. Every morning we put in a new lamb.”
Peres in turn had told Reagan about a meeting between two members of the Politburo who were discussing the raising of families.
“How is it in Hungary?” asked one. “They’re building up socialism,” replied the other.
“What about Poland?” The reply was the same. “They’re building up socialism.”
“What about Israel?” “Are you crazy? In their own country?”
At a meeting with John F. Kennedy, Peres was caught off guard when the US president asked him whether Israel was building a nuclear bomb.
Scrambling for a suitable response, Peres replied: “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear power.”
That part of the conversation was reported, and Levi Eshkol, who was then prime minister, sent an angry cable to Peres asking him how he could say such a thing.
However, a few weeks later, the reply that Peres had given became part of Israel’s policy towards that question, even though it was common knowledge that a textile factory in Dimona was not exactly what it purported to be. Peres himself began to speak about it openly following revelations by former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu in 1986.
Also in conversation with Kennedy, Peres, who wanted to acquire Hawk missiles, asked why America was refusing to sell them to Israel. Kennedy replied that it was complicated but suggested that Peres talk to his brother Bobby. “But your brother is on the other side of the Potomac,” said Peres.
Kennedy smiled and retorted: “You’re a young man, you can swim.”
France As much as Peres is fond of France and many of its leaders, former French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville was not one of his favorite people. Prior to his appointment by president Charles de Gaulle, Couve de Murville had been France’s ambassador in Cairo where he had fostered a close relationship with the Arab world.
In as much as Couve de Murville was extremely pro-Arab, Pierre Gilbert, who was France’s ambassador to Israel, was extremely pro-Israel. The Israelis loved him, a factor that did not sit too well with Couve de Murville, who recalled him to Paris. The Israelis were sorry to see Gilbert go, and tried to have him reinstated.
Peres sought the intercession of Gen. Pierre Koenig, who under de Gaulle had been chief of staff of the Free French Forces during the Second World War. Koenig asked for a meeting with de Gaulle, who initially refused to see him knowing in advance the subject he wanted to raise. But Koenig persevered and eventually de Gaulle gave him five minutes.
“All our friends say you’ve made a mistake in endorsing Gilbert’s recall,” said Koenig.
To which de Gaulle replied: “Then the time has come to change your friends.”
Gilbert was replaced by another envoy.
De Gaulle once asked Peres to explain Israel’s political coalition system, which he found utterly perplexing.
“The Right is against the people and the Left is against the government.
How can you run a country?” he exclaimed.
Casting his mind further back, Peres recalled a dinner at which he, de Gaulle, Ben-Gurion, and French prime minister Michel Debré, a Catholic who was the son of well-known Jewish professor of medicine Robert Debré, all sat at one table – so in essence, de Gaulle was the only person at the table without Jewish genes. Curious about Ben-Gurion’s hidden desires for his country, de Gaulle prodded him as to whether he wanted to control Sinai or the mountains of Moab, or to find additional water resources.
Ben-Gurion replied that had he been asked 20 or 30 years earlier he would probably have replied in the affirmative to all three options, but his greatest dream at that time was to have more Jews in Israel. “Where will they come from?” asked de Gaulle.
“From America?” Ben-Gurion nodded.
“From France?” de Gaulle prodded.
Again Ben-Gurion nodded and a disbelieving de Gaulle asked him to name any French Jew who had left for Israel. Ben-Gurion was indeed able to do so and came up with several names of prominent French Jewish personalities. “Where else?” asked de Gaulle.
“Russia,” said Ben-Gurion unhesitatingly.
De Gaulle was incredulous. “The Soviet government will let your people go?” he queried. With hindsight, Ben-Gurion’s confidence was not misplaced.
Germany On his first visit to Germany after the Holocaust, Peres wanted to meet chancellor Konrad Adenauer, following the reparations agreement that Adenauer had reached with Ben-Gurion. Israel was sorely in need of military equipment and Ben-Gurion had sent Peres and Haim Laskov, who was then commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force, to Germany to ask Adenauer for arms, for which Israel was unable to pay. They were told that they first had to speak to defense minister Franz Josef Strauss.
Accompanied by Asher Ben-Natan, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Germany, they visited Strauss at his home in Bavaria. En route, they saw many uniformed soldiers and policemen, whose presence evoked a chilling reminder of the recently deposed Nazi regime. Strauss was known to be a man who liked his brew, and after six hours of drinking and talking, Peres finally said to him that he wanted German arms free of charge.
Strauss referred him to the head of Socialist faction, who told him that nothing could be done without Adenauer’s permission.
Peres called Adenauer, who was more accessible than political leaders are today, and asked for an appointment.
Adenauer told him to come the next day, which was Saturday. Peres said he couldn’t, because as a representative of the Israeli government, he could not publicly violate the Jewish Sabbath.
“So come on Sunday,” said Adenauer.
Aware that Adenauer was Catholic, Peres said in surprise: “Do you work on Sunday?’ “Someone has to work,” Adenauer replied.
China Many years later, when Peres as foreign minister visited China, well in advance of the establishment of diplomatic ties, it happened to be his birthday, and the Chinese honored him with a birthday cake and wine.
The next time he visited China, he went to Shanghai, where he delivered a speech in English. He noticed that at one stage the translator encountered difficulties and afterwards she asked if he would mind telling her the meaning of the words she didn’t understand.
She had never heard of anti- Semitism or the Shoah, despite the fact that Shanghai had been a haven for Jews fleeing from Nazi occupied Europe.
Peres’s third visit to China was for the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
Because this would have entailed travel on the Jewish Sabbath – something he was not prepared to do – organizers converted a guest house within the Olympic village for his comfort and built a special red carpeted tunnel for him to walk from there to his seat so that there would be no question with regard to any Sabbath desecration. This ensured that he could sit together with the president of the United States and the prime minister of England.
The Chinese also honored him by translating his book on The New Middle East into Chinese. Peres credits Israel’s excellent and ever-improving relationship with China to the late Shoul Eisenberg, an international businessman with strong military industries connections to China who launched the Israel China Friendship Society, of which Peres was the long time honorary president.
MyanmarBurma, now known as Myanmar, was among the first countries to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations. In the early 1950s, Ben-Gurion visited Burma, and prime minister U Nu visited Israel. Burma’s terrain was saturated with forests, while Israel at the time of U Nu’s visit was almost barren. Not realizing the reason for this, U Nu congratulated Israel on having cleared the forests.
Some years later, when Ne Win was president of Burma and wanted to build an army, Israel sold Spitfires to Burma, which flew via Iraq to get to their destination. Peres and defense minister Moshe Dayan were invited to Burma to celebrate Burma’s spitfire acquisition, and every night throughout their stay, the Burmese put on a pageant in their honor.
When former ambassador of Ghana Henry Hanson Hall presented his credentials, Peres plied him with stories of Kwame Nkrumah, who was Ghana’s first president.
Nkrumah had spent many years away from his native land and his mother’s house, studying in England and then in the United States, where he was president of the US African Students Organization. When he eventually returned home after a 12 year absence, he knocked on the door of his mother’s house. A voice from the other side inquired who was knocking.
When he stated his name, he was not believed and was told that Kwame was in America. After some persistent argument on his part, his mother opened the door but did not recognize him.
Nkrumah was born with six fingers on one hand, and when he held out his hand to his mother as proof that he was her son, she was still not fully convinced. She wanted to see his teeth, because was born with an unusually large gap between his two front teeth.
This time, the proof had disappeared.
Nkrumah had undergone dental treatment in America and the gap no longer existed. But after talking to his mother for a little longer, he was finally able to persuade her that he was indeed her son.
Kenya When Yitzhak Rabin and Peres visited Jomo Kenyatta – the founding father of Kenya – in his village, he was 70 years old. There was a small forest in the village courtyard. Kenyatta explained its origins. “For every one of our fighters that the British hanged, I plant a tree.” Then he added: “I feel like Moses. He traveled 40 years in the desert and never arrived at the Promised Land. I hid for 40 years in Mount Kenya in my land, but only then did I reach my promised freedom.”
After recounting this anecdote, Peres added a sideline noting that Israel trained some of Kenya’s freedom fighters at Mount Carmel. As defense minister he went to visit them. Two of the fighters were standing on the alert with their fingers on the trigger. Peres asked their commander why they were holding their fingers on the trigger.
“He looked at me and said: ‘Sir, what will happen if a tiger appears?’”
South Africa Peres was also friendly with Nelson Mandela. During one of his visits with the former South African president, Mandela told Peres about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a court of forgiveness – headed by Desmond Tutu, another prominent South African whom Peres counts as a friend. Peres asked Mandela how he could forgive the Afrikaners who tortured his people.
“He looked at me and said: ‘This is South Africa. If we do not let bygones be bygones, we shall not make a different future.’ “On my way out I was accompanied by his aide. I also asked him how he could forgive. His answer was: ‘In the heart of every South African, there resides a small Nelson Mandela.’”