The Closest Thing to Royalty in Israel

President Shimon Peres has everything one could want. At 90, all of the rich and powerful of the world and the nation flock to his side, showering him with praise, seeking his company, looking for some of the stardust that he has been blessed with.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“What does an old man have to look forward to?” wrote Israeli poet David Avidan. “He gets up in the morning, but the morning does not get up in him.” President Shimon Peres gets up early in the morning and, if it were up to him, he would get up an hour earlier and ravenously storm the universe with infinite curiosity and zeal. What does Peres lack? He has everything one could want. At age 90 (minus two months), all of the rich and powerful of the world and Israel flock to his side, showering him with praise, seeking his company, looking for some of the stardust that he has been blessed with.

Peres defined himself in his youth as a poet of stars. It is doubtful whether he could have envisaged or imagined that, in his later years, the stars would be Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, who will forever be remembered for her crossed legs in the movie “Basic Instinct.”

One could say a lot of things about Peres’s birthday party Tuesday night at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center: grandiose and megalomaniac, dignified and exaggerated, displaying North Korean elements (the female officer who saluted him while tautly standing at attention) but also fitting for a person of his legendary caliber. One thing you cannot say is that it gave anyone goose bumps.

Barbra Streisand did give the audience goose bumps but that's because she is Barbra Streisand. The entire show was too elaborate, too polished, with too much plastic and too many bright lights; that is why it was not capable of arousing any hidden capillaries.

When the video depicting the life of the guest of honor was made, certain controversial episodes were left on the cutting room floor – apparently inadvertently: The Oslo Accords and the Chairperson of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, for example (it was mentioned that Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but not for what), the endless arguments, the tomatoes in Petah Tikva, the political failures. All we saw was love - love all the time - to paraphrase the words that Israeli singer Lior Yeini crooned in the 1970s. Peres once said that it was alright to smell polls but that you should never let them intoxicate you. For the past six years, he has allowed himself to be intoxicated by all the love that he has received, and yet he is hungry for more.

For three decades, Peres was a hawk; for three decades, he was a dove. In the last decade, he has seemed like someone who is running about wildly, as he tries to gather up all the love and admiration that was denied him for the last 60 years – the love and admiration that he began to enjoy the moment he stopped being a politician and became the Father of the Nation. Even his rivals admit that he is one of Israel’s strategic assets. He travels the world, as one of the young and restless, and presents an Israel that is more moderate, more enlightened and more tolerant - an Israel that aspires to peace and progress. Not an Israel where women are excluded in the public arena, where vigilante “price tag” actions are carried out against Palestinians. Not an Israel where a protracted occupation of another nation’s land is carcinogenic. Not an Israel where racism is explicitly expressed. One day Peres will not be with us and then we will realize how vital he was for us, almost like the air we breathe.

Needless to say, no other Israeli leader could have attracted such a flock of fans and admirers. The obvious reason is that no other Israeli leader can match Peres’s phenomenal record. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was given the treatment reserved for royalty only at his funeral. Peres is getting it today during his lifetime. Compared to Peres, everyone else is a mere grasshopper. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat on Peres’s left and was almost unnoticed in the crowd. It would be interesting to know what flashed through the prime minister’s mind last night. Did he ask himself whether he would ever be accorded such great honor, or even one-tenth of it, whether as prime minister or afterward? During all the joy that was expressed at this birthday celebration, did Netanyahu experience a moment of bitterness as he contemplated the way the media is so lenient with Peres and so merciless in its day in and day out attacks on Netanyahu and his wife Sara?

In another year’s time, Peres will be the outgoing president. He will be spending his last few months in office packing and farewell parties. Or perhaps he won’t. According to rumors that are spreading like wildfire, his presidency might be extended. He does not concern himself with such a question just as he has never concerned himself with anything that smacked of personal interest. He has always been solely concerned with peace - everything for peace and peace for everything. Is what we saw last night the opening shot of a campaign to extend his term in office? To paraphrase something that Peres said in his speech last night, apparently somebody is already working on a second term of office, while Peres is still with us, while he is still kicking up a storm.

President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters
Peres, Streisand, Clinton and Netanyahu in J'lem.Credit: AP

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