The protest movement leaders are convinced that Saturday night's demonstration in Tel Aviv was the largest since the rally in Malchei Yisrael Square (now Rabin Square ) 29 years ago, following the massacres in Lebanon's Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. At that rally, hundreds of thousands of people, including many whose sons were fighting on the Lebanese front at the time, pressed then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin to appoint a state commission of inquiry. And President Yitzhak Navon openly and courageously sided with the hundreds of thousands of citizens to demand that the massacre be investigated.
Even though the protest was led by Peace Now, a campaign group far from being at the heart of the consensus, and related to a war over which leftists and rightists were at loggerheads, Israel's No. 1 citizen neither hid behind the excuse of representing "the state" nor feared losing his popularity among "the people." Navon was not afraid of being accused of abusing the president's office for political purposes. The fifth president threw all his personal and presidential weight into the ring. Those in the know say his threat to resign the presidency was what tipped the balance in favor of appointing the Kahan Commission to investigate the massacre, which led to Ariel Sharon's ouster from the Defense Ministry.
But current President Shimon Peres preferred to stay home Saturday night and thereby missed a great opportunity - perhaps his last - to earn his place in heaven. For more than two years, the ninth president has been "eating his heart out quietly," but he has been careful to keep his existential fears out of the public eye. He fears that public criticism of government policy would revive the old accusation that he is an "indefatigable saboteur."
Peres says it is important to him to maintain his lofty status as "the president of all the people," which he attained only with great toil. But now is the time to reap the fruits of his labor.
"The people," who until this summer were addicted to reality television, have now decided to change the reality of their lives. The public has distanced itself from its elected representatives and is casting doubt on their policies and judgment. A large group of people is now ready to accept paradigms different from those that returned the conservative right to power.
Given that the opposition parties are merely treading water, there is no more appropriate agent of change than Peres. In his roles as prime minister (twice ), defense minister, foreign minister and finance minister, he accumulated vast knowledge and experience about every aspect of Israeli life. His duty is to "tell the people the truth," as he himself constantly says. The president must stand before the public and say aloud the harsh things he has said in private.
On June 17, my colleague Yossi Verter reported that in private conversations, concerned citizen Peres is warning of the grave consequences of the diplomatic stalemate, which is leading the Palestinians to unilaterally seek UN recognition as a state. "Economic boycotts against Israel are taking place before our eyes," he said, adding: "There's no need for boycotts - suffice it if ports in Europe or Canada stop unloading Israeli merchandise." And he continued: "We're about to crash into the wall. We're galloping at full speed toward a situation where we will lose the State of Israel as a Jewish state."
He said it - but then he took off on yet another journey to explain Israel's positions overseas; held yet another meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And that's how Benjamin Netanyahu bought Peres for a mess of pottage: pointless talks with the Palestinians and "the world" about renewing "the peace process." The prime minister thereby obtained both backing from the Israeli president and bought more time from the American president.
About 10 days ago, when it became clear to Netanyahu that Peres was taking the job seriously, he informed the president that he has no mandate to talk about the 1967 borders and territorial exchanges. The prime minister put another spoke in the wheel of negotiations by insisting that talks could begin only after the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, defense officials are keeping the president briefed with their gloomy forecasts for the day after the UN General Assembly declares a Palestinian state.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is gnashing his teeth but keeping his mouth shut. The day after the huge demonstration, he was generous enough to call it "a matriculation certificate for Israel's citizenry." But he has a lot to learn from the people. Peres' silence while any chance of peace and security for a Jewish and democratic state is being buried is a testament to the poverty of spirit of Israel's No. 1 citizen.
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