Opinion

What Really Made Shimon Peres Tick

Travelling in secret to Morocco with Shimon Peres in 1981, I discovered the secret of his political longevity.

Shimon Peres in disguise before visiting an Arab state.
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It was January 1981, late at the evening, in one of the royal palaces, in Marrakesh. Shimon Peres (then head of the opposition) and I were waiting to see the late King Hassan of Morocco. It was a secret visit, and we had traveled under false identities.

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As we continued to wait in one the largest rooms of the beautiful building, we already knew: there was no time slot for a meeting with the king. He offers you the use of his private airplane, he puts you up in whichever palace he was currently residing, and he summons you to meet in the early hours of night.

There was a television in the room. We turned it on and saw an old man reciting the Koran. This was the only channel. We turned it off. Peres asked our host whether we could leave the palace to go see a performance of Moroccan music. The official looked at us, amazed. He apologized, and said that too many people would recognize Peres, which could expose our visit and embarrass the King. Nevertheless, he promised not to let us down.

After an hour we were called to another room in the palace, and it was clear that the mountain had come to Peres: a group of twenty dancers, musicians and singers was waiting for us. Two chairs were put in the middle of the room, and we were invited to be their sole audience.

It was one of the most bizarre entertainment spectacles I have ever seen. An audience of two is a huge responsibility: an audience of two cannot move, cannot leave, cannot let down the performers, who expect them to applaud after each act. Peres looked like he was enjoying every minute; he moved his head with the music as if he knew every note, and applauded enthusiastically. I suffered, and I felt ill at ease for bothering all those people only for us, and I shared my feelings with Peres.

He didn't understand my reservations. He said, smiling: "You are totally wrong. Don't worry about the artists - they will all be well compensated, and to perform in the King's palace is very prestigious, whether they knew who we were or not. As to the music itself – I didn't suffer. True, this isn't something that I'm going to hum to myself from now on, but it was nice and gentle, and I could even listen to it more".

Our discussion was interrupted by the announcement that the king was waiting for us. We never had a chance to return to the conversation, but later on, I thought that this event showed, much more than other more celebrated political episodes, his true personality. Shimon Peres was a man who loved life, he loved political life, and he taught himself to enjoy both, and that capacity was what enabled him to stay active and involved for so long.  

Dr Yossi Beilin served as Israel's Minister of Justice and initiated the Oslo Accords, Geneva Accords and the Taglit Birthright project.