Shimon Peres did not seem happy this Sunday when he stood up to address 13,000 delegates of the AIPAC conference in Washington. He was hesitant, constantly glancing down at his script, nothing like the normally self-confident orator. In fact, during some parts of the speech, he seemed almost under duress. It was if he had orders from the Prime Minister's Office: Go Big on the Shoah and on Iran! But he didn't look very comfortable talking about either.
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The president toed the line, up to a point. He reminisced about his grandfather who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, but he didn't go straight on to Tehran. First he managed to squeeze in a mention of his mentor David Ben-Gurion. And then a bit about peace and justice and the Palestinians, and only then three terse paragraphs on the Iranian threat, without any historical context. Finally, with that over, he was free to dwell on subjects much closer to his heart: He segued to brain research and other "possibilities that today sound like science fiction."
Most of the comparisons made this week about the AIPAC speeches and meetings were between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu and their policy differences over Iran. But the contrast between Netanyahu and Peres is just as important to Israel's future, if not more so. The prime minister's AIPAC speech two days after the president's was a much surer and self-confident performance.
Introducing the minister-of-nothing
Netanyahu wasn't squeamish about the Holocaust. Of all the members of his entourage, he chose to recognize Yossi Peled, minister-of-nothing-whatsoever, simply because his father was murdered in Auschwitz - and Peled, a former IDF general, is the only Holocaust survivor in the cabinet. Then Netanyahu moved almost immediately to Iran, which took up nearly the entire speech, but he never forgot the historical connection. Iran was very rarely just Iran, as when Netanyahu compared some of the arguments against attacking Iran's nuclear program to the reasons given by the U.S. government in 1944, not to bomb Auschwitz. Purim gave him yet another opportunity for reaching back into the past when "2,500 years ago a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people" (how unsurprising that Netanyahu gave Obama a Scroll of Esther as a gift ). The fact that Pesach is still a month off didn't prevent him from adding a quote from the Haggadah: "In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people."
It is not that Netanyahu, the historian's son, is overly obsessed with the past, while Peres at 88, just wants to escape into the future. There is a deeper, psychological and ideological divide at work here. It was no coincidence that Peres mentioned Ben-Gurion at AIPAC: The first prime minister did not believe in getting too hung up about the Holocaust. If he had, he would never have been able to sign a reparations agreement with Germany a mere seven years after the end of the Holocaust.
Menachem Begin, the Likud's first prime minister, certainly could not have done so. In three decades of opposition, the only time he ever called upon the public to rise and revolt against the government was at the mass protest against accepting German reparations. And 29 years later, it would be Begin as prime minister who ordered the strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, for exactly the same reasons his successor Netanyahu is espousing now. The Begin Doctrine calls for Israel to act, independently if needs be, to prevent its enemies from achieving a nuclear capability. Peres, then leader of the opposition, was against the Osirak attack, and to this day has not changed his mind. He remains faithful to Ben-Gurion's strategy, that Israel must never risk international isolation by going to war without the backing of foreign powers. That's why he is now distinctly unhappy with Netanyahu's beating on all the war drums.
After AIPAC Peres flew to the West Coast, taking in the IBM Brain Lab, and meeting Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Sergey Brin at Google (just imagine how moments like these torment anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists; the Jews do control the world! ). Not a word about Iran. This is how the Peres brand is kept cool, rapping with the kings of the Internet, five and six decades his junior. But is this just another example of the naivete of the old man who believed that the support of the international community would be enough to ensure that the Oslo Accords would succeed? Should he be wasting valuable time and platforms in the United States talking about the future of brain research while the Iranian centrifuges are revolving and enriching uranium near Qom? He is having fun and promoting Israeli science and technological prowess, but is it not a form of escapism? A preoccupation with the past is not the only reason to support an Iranian attack. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is even more bullish than Netanyahu on Iran, rarely, if ever, uses historical justifications. He prefers to base his decisions on his own brilliant analyses of the future. But it is Peres and Netanyahu who embody the forward-backward dilemma of Zionism.
The Jewish state has no justification or direction without its roots in the past. But it is doomed without a vision for the future. Neuroscience and nanotechnology are very valuable but in themselves but will not secure the future for Israel nor safeguard its identity. An obsession with biblical-apocalyptic scenarios may supply warning signs but does not lend itself to rational decision-making. Both are narcissistic time-absorbing pursuits.