Peres’ Parting Tip to Obama on Middle East: Stick With Your Friends, Warts and All

In farewell meeting at White House, the outgoing Israeli president spoke out on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, al-Sissi, King Abdullah and the Kurds; but a unified Iraq, he assumes, is a lost cause.

President Shimon Peres with U.S. Barack Obama at the White House, June 25, 2014.
President Shimon Peres with U.S. Barack Obama at the White House, June 25, 2014. GPO

Shimon Peres gave Barack Obama a tour d’horizon of the convulsive Middle East at the White House on Wednesday, leaving his 40 year younger American counterpart with a piece of simple advice: Stick with your friends, no matter how flawed they may be, so that they will help you fight your real enemies.

Support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is a “courageous partner in peace,” Peres said. Support newly-elected Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi who is “pro-American.” Support Jordan. Fight Hamas and Iran. Oh, and don’t try to save Iraq as a single political unit: It’s a lost cause, unless you or anyone else is willing to invest massive military forces, which you’re not. Support the independent and democratic de-facto state of the Kurds instead.

Peres met with Obama as part of his farewell tour of the U.S. capital, a month before he is due to leave office on July 27. He told Obama that he is looking forward to being liberated from the “golden cage” of the Israeli presidency, to which Obama replied: “That’s how I feel too.”

After meeting for almost three hours with Obama and his staff as well as with American Jewish leaders who had been previously scheduled to come to the White House, the 90-year-old Peres went out in the sweltering Washington heat to brief Israeli reporters and then the American press on his talks. Despite the best efforts of his aides, Obama himself did not agree to talk publicly at Peres’ side or to make any statement at their joint photo-op, possibly because he wanted to avoid potentially embarrassing questions on Iran, Iraq – or his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peres and his aides emphasized that Obama opened his meetings with an unequivocal condemnation of the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students. Peres told reporters that Obama “said this was a top concern for him and that America would do whatever it can to help bring the boys home.”

Peres also said that Obama had agreed to have the U.S. Attorney General examine a “new proposal” regarding the release of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard that Peres had conveyed on behalf of Pollard’s family. Peres refused to give more details on the proposal.

Pere said that the U.S. Administration should strengthen Abbas, who “risked his life” by roundly condemning the kidnappings at the Arab League meeting last week. Peres said that Abbas wants to hold new elections in Gaza and the West Bank because he believes that “this time Fatah will win and Hamas will lose.”

Peres said that the West should not take sides in the confrontation between Sunni and Shia in the Arab world. “This is something that the Arab League might do: they have the means and they have the forces.” Peres was pessimistic, however, about the possibility that Iraq will stay united, saying that the Kurds have already set up a “democratic and independent” state that is supported by Turkey.

Peres said that the nuclear issue of Iran should be dealt with “like Syria” – by removing “dangerous levels of enriched uranium” from its soil. He said that Obama had told him that there had been “progress” in the talks with Iran, but if no agreement is reached, the U.S. will reinstall the sanctions regime as before.

On Thursday, Peres is slated to receive a Congressional Gold Medal and address the Congress leadership as well as a Human Rights Prize named in honor of the late Congressman Tom Lantos. Obama told Peres that Congress usually disagrees with him about everything, so the fact that both gave him medals is an exception to the rule. Obama presented Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony in June, 2012.