I have been honored to meet and work with a large number of talented and devoted leaders. However, I have always been besotted with the heart and mind of former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
I got to know President Peres when, after 9/11, I spent a decade devoted to working on issues of terrorism and peace. I co-founded and led The Israel Project. Our group was a start-up, and in the beginning not everyone saw it important to work with me and our group. However, Shimon Peres was immediately welcoming, and I loved our regular meetings.
Over a decade I had the opportunity to work with leaders from around the world. This included meetings with all of Israel’s top leaders: Prime Ministers Olmert, Barak, Netanyahu and Peres. I met with Ambassadors and other top leaders from 85 nations. I also worked with key Palestinian leaders, including President Salam Fayyad. However, amougst them all, I must admit, Shimon Peres is my favorite of favorites. Every time I met with him, I learned something new. He made me want to work harder and smarter. And he always made me smile.
Coming into Peres’ office in itself was a pleasure. Usually some very interesting and important person would be exiting from an earlier meeting. Inside, of course, there was his Nobel Peace prize, other awards and lots of books. But there was also a toy doll of Ben Gurion – his mentor and hero. President Peres would offer something to drink, and would pour his guests coffee, water or tea himself. He is always surrounded by smart and energetic people.
Shimon Peres is a political junkie. Usually when I met with him I had either pollsters Frank Luntz, PhD or Stan Greenberg PhD with me. We would bring binders of poll data on possible ways to “sell” peace, coexistence and security. We brought data from the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia, Germany and — of course – the Palestinian areas.
At times we even had data from Egypt and Lebanon. Shimon Peres devoured the data and memorized it in no time. He always had smart insights and offered new challenges and ideas. When we were done reviewing data, he would turn to talk about U.S. politics. He was up to the minute in every minutia of America policies and politicians. He had more insights than any U.S. TV commentator.
If later in my same trip we had a meeting with Ehud Barak (who was then Minister of Defense) or Prime Minister Olmert or later Netanyahu, they usually had already heard the most important data bits from Peres. Despite the fact that they frequently disagreed, former and current Prime Ministers Barak, Netanyahu and Peres spoke and worked together extremely well.
Once I brought 19 Ambassadors from around the world to Israel and the Palestinian territories. I got to introduce each of them to Palestinian President Fayyad, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and to then Israeli President Peres. Each of these meetings was fantastically helpful because, for the first time, these leaders were hearing and seeing facts with their own ears. It was amazing!
Sadly, however, currently Shimon Peres is in the hospital after a series of health incidents, including a stroke. At age 93, he is no longer strong and vital. But not so many years ago, when he was still Israel’s president, there was a short power blackout in Israel. Peres had to get to the 12th floor of a building in Tel Aviv. Much to the chagrin of his much younger body guards, he took the stairs.
As my last big thing when I was at The Israel Project, I had a series of “exit interviews” of a variety with leaders. I got to say my one last piece, and asked each of them for feedback on my work, and how I could improve. My most special meeting was with Shimon Peres. It took place in the executive lounge of the Tel Aviv Hilton, on the sidelines of the Jewish Funders Network conference four years ago. There Peres explained, “Leadership in our time is not to be on top, but to be ahead. If you want to be a leader you need the confidence of the people that you will serve them, not rule them.” He spoke of his visit to California where he met with Google leader Serge Brinn (a Russian Jew who was brought as a child to America by the Jewish Agency) and Facebook innovator Mark Zuckerberg. He pointed out that without an army or a fortune; they had created a revolution greater than Lenin. “The world changed overnight. Can you conquer wisdom with armies?” Peres asks. “Now that I’m president, I don’t order. I ask. It’s a government of will.”
To Peres at that time there were three main issues on the agenda of the Jewish people. The first is to live a moral life — to consider the other person as you would yourself. He reminds people that the Ten Commandments only have 172 words, yet it is 3,500 years old and the basis of a civilization.
The second is to love knowledge and keep our curiosity. He always points out that the secret to Jews’ success is our constant dissatisfaction. We look for the right questions for the future. Then the answers follow. Our basis, he points out, is tikkun olam, wanting to “produce a better man and a better world.” Peres’ more recent focus has been on the intersection between brain science and computers. His speeches and work have advanced this very forward thinking topic. A key part of his legacy may well be the very exciting nonprofit he inspired: israelbrain.org.
Peres’ third agenda issue is to seek peace and to help stop those who bring terror and war. Known foremost for his peace work and Nobel Prize, Peres is a champion of peace. He cares as much about Palestinians and other Arab children as he does about Jewish children. It shows. When a mosque in Israel was burned by extremists, he not only spoke out, he went there, took off his shoes, demonstrated his respect for the Imam and our Muslim neighbors. He has done regular interviews in Arabic language media – asking for peace and a two state solution that can help BOTH sides. He walks the walk.
These same principles have guided entire Peres’ life. As a child in Poland, Peres (then Persky) spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who was an Orthodox rabbi. His father had gone to Israel and later brought Shimon and his mother and brother there. His grandfather stayed behind with his congregation. At one point all the Jews left in his town in Poland were forced into the shul. The doors were locked. All the people inside, including Peres’ grandfather, where burned alive. Still, despite this horror that happened to his family, Peres is an optimist.
In his early twenties, Peres was a young farmer and kibbutz leader. He married his true love, Sonya, and they had three kids. Sadly, both Sonya and his beloved brother died in recent years. I came as he was sitting shiva, and one of his beloved grandchildren was at his side.
Peres was recruited into politics and became a big fan of Israel’s first leader, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. Not only does he literally have a doll of Ben-Gurion on his desk, he published a book on Ben-Gurion.
A master linguist (and his daughter follows in his footsteps as a full-time linguist) Peres’ French is flawless. His relations with France enabled Israel’s nuclear program. This likely prevented several wars, saving lives on all sides.
Peres has been friends with every U.S. president going back for decades. He is especially close to President Bill Clinton, and is a real fan of President Obama, whom he saw when Peres accepted a Presidential Medal from him at the White House.
Peres always talks of Israel as a country of innovations. But he himself is a constant innovator – constantly reinventing himself. He was with five different political parties, served in almost every leadership role in Israel since its founding, is both a hawk and a dove at the same time, and shows peace through strength. Evolving from being a supporter of expanding Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank to a willingness to give up land for peace, he says that the Middle East’s greatest challenge today is poverty, not politics.
Always an optimist, Peres reminds us “your head is better than a computer. You can imagine.” I love that man. Here is to wishing Shimon Peres a full and fast recovery!!