Shimon Peres’s award ceremony in Washington

In 20 years since I started working with Shimon Peres, I have developed a kind of cynicism to cope with seriousness of the man.

Obama awards Peres Presidential Medal of Freedom 370 (photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Obama awards Peres Presidential Medal of Freedom 370
(photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
For more than 20 years since I started working with Shimon Peres, I have developed a kind of cynicism to cope with the seriousness of the man, with the almost impossible situations he knows how to escape from, with the high peaks of his career, with the abysses we fell into; and especially with the boundless optimism that he exudes at all times and under all circumstances.
This cynicism, it seems to me, was constructed by my psyche to complete, balance and be employed as the devil’s advocate against his creative innocence.
On Wednesday at the White House, I was freed for the first time of this inherent cynicism.
The moment of liberation occurred when I saw the president of the world’s sole superpower, Barack Obama, hand the highest US award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the president of the Jewish state, once a little boy who left his grandfather’s tallit in Vishneva, which today is in Belarus; the young man who led the pro-Ben-Gurion revolution in the Noar Ha’oved youth movement; the kibbutz member who later led the construction of Israel’s defense forces, Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel Military Industries, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, and the IDF’s rehabilitation after the Yom Kippur War.
I watched the ceremony, filled with pride in the man who built the Good Fence along the border with Lebanon, the leader who during his tenure as prime minister saved the State of Israel from economic collapse, and in my opinion, managed to reduce inflation that was over 600 percent to tolerable rates, the prime minister who for the first time withdrew IDF troops from Lebanon in 1985.
It was he who removed a cloud over Israeli-Egyptian relations by solving the Taba crisis. I watched as he, together with Yitzhak Rabin, laid the foundation for a peace treaty with Egypt in the form of an interim agreement. I watched as he served as a senior partner in the peace treaty with Jordan and the architect of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
During his tenure as prime minister (after Rabin’s assassination), mutual visits as well as economic and cultural cooperation between Israel and countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Morocco, Tunis and Mauritania become everyday occurrences – and, therefore, no longer newsworthy.
During Wednesday’s ceremony, while Obama gave a long speech praising Peres, I remembered different moments in my work with him, and one in particular came to mind.
It was when he was foreign minister and appeared before the Council of Europe’s foreign ministers in Brussels, speaking after an exceptionally harsh address against Israel by the foreign minister of Sweden.
In her speech, there was not a crime Israel wasn’t blamed for: oppression, discrimination, war-mongering, excessive use of force and even war crimes. I watched Peres. He didn’t move as he heard these outrageous accusations, and his speech opened with a question to all the foreign ministers present.
Peres said that he had acquired a lot of experience with foreign policy but could not fathom Sweden’s policy. Could they? Then, he reminded his audience, when the world witnessed the slaughter of six million Jews and 30 million others during World War II, Sweden – yes, the same Sweden that now preaches morality to Israel, chose to be neutral.
“Can someone in this hall explain to me this policy?” he asked. At this point, Peres turned to each of the foreign ministers personally and asked: “Perhaps your excellency can decipher the code of this neutrality for me? How could anyone be neutral against the Nazis?” You could cut the air with a knife. The shocked ministers nodded soberly in agreement with Peres. The Swedish minister, young and pretty, shrank in her chair.
After the Israeli foreign minister stepped down, the discussion turned to other matters, and Israel, for a while, was off the European agenda.
I recalled this incident and many others while I witnessed the White House ceremony, causing me to feel pride rather than my usual, old cynicism. My normal pessimism was replaced by Peres’s famous optimism. I realized that the story of the boy who moved from a wooden hut in Vishneva to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, a shepherd on the hills above Lake Kinneret who became the revered leader of a global hi-tech superpower was why Peres won this medal.
It is actually the story of the State of Israel.
Democratic Israel, independent Israel, a Jewish state that strives for peace with its Arab neighbors.
On my way home to Israel, I thought to myself that it would be a good idea if each and every one of us would let go – even for a moment – of the cynicism that surrounds us, and become Shimon Peres, if only for a day.
The writer is a senior strategic adviser to President Shimon Peres.