President to Attend Breakfast at Peres Center for Peace Today

President Shimon Peres will attend an exclusive breakfast this morning that the Peres Center for Peace is hosting for guests of the President's Conference, which opens today in Jerusalem. The center's director general, Ron Pundak, denied the breakfast was a fund-raising event.

As president of the state, Peres is prohibited from official involvement in the center, and especially in its financial affairs.

Peres set up the center in 1996, after losing an election for prime minister. Though the center bears his name, he officially ceased all involvement when he reentered public office, first as a minister and then as president. This disconnect is required by law, for fear of conflicts of interests.

Two months ago, commenting for a Haaretz feature on the center, the president's office stated, "Since taking office, President Shimon Peres is not involved, directly or indirectly, in the management or policy of the Peres Center for Peace. Similarly, the president does not engage in fund-raising for the center."

The breakfast may not be officially defined as a fund-raising event, but at least some of the invitees are very clear on what it is really all about. A source present at a similar event during last year's President's Conference told Haaretz that money was donated at the conclusion of the meal.

"They asked for help last time," he said. "They said they want to do such and such a project, and then they said, 'now we need to finish this part because Peres is about to come in and we can't discuss money while he's here.'"

"They're just using the fact that half of their donors come to this event," a source in the center added.

The past year was financially difficult for the center. It cut salaries, fired employees, stopped projects and closed down entire departments. But during all this time, its fund-raising efforts were channeled in one direction only - completing construction of the center's new headquarters on Kedem Street in Jaffa, whose costs have skyrocketed beyond original estimates, to tens of millions of shekels.

Due to the financial difficulties, the move to the new building has been repeatedly postponed. In August, Pundak told Haaretz that "we are moving into the building in October, come what may." But the move was recently postponed yet again - to November 18. Meanwhile, Eran Levy, the center's deputy director general, has resigned.

When asked about the planned breakfast yesterday, Pundak said, "it's our breakfast event, and we're inviting Peres to welcome our friends. As far as he is concerned, this is a process of briefing our friends on what has been done over the last year or two. We're not planning any games. I tell them clearly this is not a fund-raising event."

When asked whether similar events in the past ended with some guests donating money to the center, Pundak said, "sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. I don't encourage it and this is not the reason for the event ... It depends on the dynamics. If someone walks up to us and says he wants to donate, we won't say no."

The president's office stated: "This is a breakfast for old friends of the president. He comes at the end of the event to welcome them and shake their hands. We were explicitly told no fund-raising would happen at the meal. Otherwise, the president wouldn't attend."