Celebrating Peres, but Not the Personality Cult That Surrounds Him

While I admire the Peres vision of peace and normalization, I am repulsed by the disconnectedness and ego of his NIS 11 million cost of the Presidential Conference

He was born in Eastern Europe, immigrated here in his youth, was educated in the Ben Shemen youth village and contributed to local politics and security in the emergent state, both before and after its foundation. He was a man of many achievements, functioning with amazing vitality even in his ninetieth year. I am referring to Maishel Horovitz, my grandfather.

This Palmachnik, who developed the KAPAP method of face-to face combat during the British Mandate, when Jewish fighters were not allowed to carry weapons, was a platoon leader in the fight over Khirbet Mahaz in the Negev during the 1948 War of Independence, a battle that inspired S. Yizhar to write his epic novel “Days of Ziklag.” My grandfather never had the time to read that book – he was always in a rush to set up another kibbutz school or to write another book of games for the youth movements.

A few years ago he reached the age of 90. We organized an emotional celebration for family members on the kibbutz lawn. We served cake, lemonade and a few salads. Clinton was busy that day, so yours truly said a few words in English (some of our relatives live in America). A few months later he died at a ripe old age. Until his last days he continued to swim and to tend his garden. During the last months of his life, it was important for him to summarize his life’s work, so he instructed my mother to type out several hand-written tables that covered his activities across the years.

Looking back, he was very influential in formulating my own political consciousness. Possibly due to his influence I am not a purist or a theoretician. How lucky I was to have had him. Largely due to these roots my blog is now attacked by post-Zionist settlers from the right and by purist anti-Zionists from the left. It’s a great position to be in, just like a football referee, insulted by both teams. Maishel was always a pragmatist, a believer in Realpolitik and a fervent supporter of a unity government. However, when I pressed him to choose between Rabin and Peres there was never a doubt – he was of the Rabin camp, and not because of the fact that in the family photo album and in the Palmach Museum there is a small photo of him teaching Rabin how to use a stick in combat.

While I admire the Peres vision of peace and normalization, I am repulsed by the insane personality cult surrounding him. I turn my face away from it all in shame and embarrassment. Already on his 80th birthday a decade ago I was amazed at the who’s who gathering that was organized in his honor at Tel Aviv's Culture Square. Who could have anticipated what was in store for us at the 90th celebrations?

Given the present fete, I would have gladly embraced the previous one. Every time Yonit Levi of Channel 2 announces the celebratory live broadcast awaiting us I feel a lump stuck in my throat. The list of invitees includes: Bill Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Shlomo Artzi, Tony Blair, Eyal Golan. And, of course, his royal highness, who insisted on inviting Rona Ramon and Karnit Goldwasser (widows of astronaut Ilan Ramon and IDF soldier Ehud Goldwasser who was abducted and killed by Hezbollah at the onset of the first Lebanon war). In his modesty, Peres asked that no presents be brought.

The psychological explanation for all this is clear. After many controversial decades, of constantly being an electoral loser and a target of tomato throwers in Beit Shemesh, Peres is clinging to the current era as Mr. Consensus. This is understandable and even touching. However, since these are not private celebrations but a national event, it is imperative to stress two points: the disconnectedness and the ego.

These celebrations are stridently disconnected from the conditions in which the vast majority of Israelis live in. The President’s Conference cost NIS 11 million. As usual, talk there revolves around “tomorrow” and “the future”. It’s important to show concern for these, but not while disregarding the present. Bill Clinton was brought here for half a million dollars, or 2 million shekels for a birthday speech. This sends a terrible message. Following the criticism, the JNF withdrew its support and Clinton agreed to donate the money to scholarships. That’s very nice. But this only happened after the public outcry. Before that, no one thought there was a problem.

The usual excuse given is “donors.” I don’t understand this magical word. It is also used to explain the glass palace at the Peres Center for Peace on the Ajami beach in Jaffa, a structure that so far does not seem to serve the public on any regular basis. What does ‘donors’ mean? It’s nice that there are some, but the question is what they are asked to give for. If the purpose is to elevate the name of a living president, perhaps it would have been better to find better causes and more needy recipients.

This disconnect derives from a lifetime spent in public service, far from home and the daily grind. However, it also stems from ego. Every one of us has one. A wizened politician with multiple achievements has justifiable reasons for expanding his ego. The question is how and where to draw the line. A year ago Peres was flown around the country to show him a gigantic portrait of himself created by mowing a wheat field.

Last week, Jacobs Coffee composed his portrait out of 4,000 coffee mugs filled to different levels. Peres distanced himself from the latter initiative and expressed surprise at the former. Nevertheless, something in the winds blowing from the presidential residence is encouraging these initiatives. These are insane initiatives exhibiting a personality cult worthy of North Korea. Such things are not done these days in the more enlightened world.

There is no doubt that Peres is a biological wonder and a political persona of international caliber. No one can take away his achievements or contributions during his public career. One should not forget his mitigating influence in recent years in the decision making processes regarding political and security issues. But one should also remember that he often volunteered to serve as a flak jacket deflecting blows aimed at and as a defender of the Netanyahu government.

His ego and disconnectedness were of consequence at key junctures of political failures, or at uglier moments that impacted the future of Israel and the fate of all of us. Peres ran for head of the Labor Party against Amir Peretz and lost, as usual. Several days later, after many denials and a rest in Spain, he defected to Ariel Sharon’s party. He even managed to lose his presidential bid to Moshe Katzav (!), after somehow falling asleep on his watch in the corridors of the Knesset.

However, his most serious mishap occurred following Rabin’s assassination. All he had to do after the week of mourning was to announce early elections within three weeks. This was the correct, just and moral thing to do. After all, Peres wasn’t the one who was elected, Rabin was, before being murdered while in office. Peres yielded to his ego, wanting to be elected on his own terms. He stretched out his term for half a year, nominating himself as defense minister at a terrible and sensitive period, instead of nominating, for example, Ehud Barak, who was serving in the cabinet at the time. Peres wanted to be more Rabin than Rabin.

During the 1996 campaign he was again disconnected, and Netanyahu made mincemeat out of him at a public debate at which he arrived unprepared. Netanyahu proceeded to defeat him by a sliver of a percentage point at the polls. His missing voters were Israeli Arabs who stayed home after Mr Security foolishly embarked on a bombing campaign on the Lebanese border. History took a different course that night, and we are eating the bitter fruits of Netanyahu’s era to this very day.

So, Happy Birthday, Honorable Mr. President. May you live to 120 and may peace come in your lifetime. You and we deserve it. Here is just a small suggestion: try holding your 91st birthday celebration on the lawn of your residence, with a cake and a few salads. That, by the way, is how Ben Gurion celebrated his birthdays in Sde Boker. Believe me, you’ll love it. You’re used to eating healthy.