A Tale of Two Leaders: One of Them Is Real

Shimon Peres and port chief Alon Hassan have nothing in common, except for one thing.

In the "Tale of Two Cities," Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton both love the same woman.

That aspiration was all they shared. Darnay is a dreamy French aristocrat who, disgusted with the cruelty of the French nobility toward the lower classes, leaves for England in search of a more humane society. Carton is a savvy, cynical English barrister who spent his life pining for Lucie Manette – Darnay's wife.

Last week in Israel a Darnay and a Carton crossed paths, at least on the front pages.

The sensitive aristocrat admiring of more humane cultures than his own was Shimon Peres, who celebrated his 90th birthday in grand style. The cynical plebe was Alon Hassan, the now-suspended head of the Ashdod Port workers' union. Their common aspiration was no lady, however.

The aristocratic Shimon Peres, born Szymon Perski in Wiszniew, Poland in 1923, may have come from modest beginnings. But he always stood out.

As a youngster Peres was David Ben Gurion's right hand and by the tender age of 30 was named director-general of the young Israel's Defense Ministry. With his European manners, his excellent English and his famous friends, and his meticulously-done hair, he was and is the closest Israel ever had to a real aristocrat.

Alon Hassan more resembles the cunning Carton. Working in Ashdod's Port from age 21, he was the son of a port worker and powerful labor leader, who also – according to Haaretz journalist Sharon Shpurer in 2011 – dabbled in loan-sharking.

The young Hassan dreamt of being a businessman, not a dock worker. Yet relying on his employment in the port, he built a small business empire that included a moving company and a company that manufactured cleaning-supplies, supplied mostly to Ashdod Port.

Peres may be an aristocrat in spirit, a person accustomed to the finer things in life, with a glorious resume that includes engineering the Oslo peace accords and creating the vision of The New Middle East. But despite his capacity as president of Israel, his power is largely symbolic.

Hassan's may not hold parties attended by Bill Clinton and Barbra Streisand. He's charismatic but crass, more Soprano than suave. He has no famous friends, no Nobel Prize, no Medal of Freedom.

But the port union boss holds (or held, pending investigation into his affairs) enormous practical power.

Peres gives stirring speeches: he strives to persuade. Hassan could shut down Ashdod Port, the gateway through which 50% of Israel's exports pass. And he did so, including to defend the extraordinary pay of the port workers, which averages NIS 400,000 a year - among the highest in the land.

Peres can have the awards. Hassan has the power and the cash.

But they have one thing in common. Shimon Peres and Alon Hassan share the aspiration to be acknowledged.

Respectability and acceptance are their Lucie Manette. But in a weird parallel to the Tale of Two Cities, it seems only one man can win the girl.

In the same week that Israel gloriously celebrated and elevated a president who for decades found more success and respect in foreign lands than his own, it debased and punished a person who represented the sad truth of its modus operandi.

While Peres celebrated with his guests, feigning surprise, Hassan watched his achievements crumble into dust.

At the end of the day, Peres will live on in the annals of Israeli history. In a week nobody will remember, or care, who Hassan is.
 

Moshe Milner / GPO
Ilya Melnikov