Photo Courtesy David Abitbol
On June 26th, 2014, Israeli President Shimon Peres was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal In a special ceremony at the Capitol in Washington during his last trip to the United States as president. Peres was honored for his dedication to strengthening U.S. – Israel relations and for his contribution to promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Just days earlier, I had the privilege of meeting Israel’s ninth president this week in Jerusalem, ahead of his last days in office. President Peres spoke to a group of over one hundred journalists from twenty five countries to share the knowledge and life lessons he learned on his journey while serving in the Israeli government, which spanned the entire history of the state of Israel (66 years.) Peres worked diligently for four decades for a peace deal with the Palestinians, witnessing over 10 U.S. presidents’ come and go. Though, he has yet to succeed in his efforts to achieve peace in the region, he says that when he leaves office after his seven-year term ends this month, he is going to try a different route: global high-tech, and that he is, “finished working with governments.” The 90-year-old outgoing president hopes to be a corporate matchmaker of sorts, seeking companies that want to bring big business to the Middle East and Israel at large.
“I am leaving the office, but I am not leaving the battle for peace,” Peres said.
“We can combine the Israeli companies with other global companies. Companies go without nationality; you don’t have to raise your national flag,” he said. “Governments are suspicious; companies are not.”
Peres assured that there is no greater friend to Israel than the United States and that the countries continue to remain the closest of allies, though he did agree that the relationship has been strained.
“I don’t think, even if there are arguments between us, that there is division on basic things like security,” Peres said. “But there are tactical differences.”
Despite all the pressing issues on the table currently in Israel, including of course the June 12th kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by Hamas, I asked the president about our world leaders today.
Peres comes from a long line of Israel’s most influential leaders that were selflessly dedicated to the land of Israel like the primary founder and first prime minister of the State of Israel David Ben Gurion, and former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. So, I asked him where have all our leaders gone. Why is it that our current leadership has been unable to achieve the greatness of the leaders of his generation and similar results, and why we are witness to so much political corruption today.
“Leadership today has a different meaning than yesterday. At that time, when we were living in the age of the land, and we had to defend the land, conquer land, an army was built to do so. And leaders are really supposed to lead. Since we have entered the new age, the age of science, I don’t think macho has much to do with it anymore. Today a leader is a person that serves, not a person that rules. I am a president so I don’t have an administration and I do not have frictions and I can do as much if not more than when I was prime minister today, because I found out that if you don’t order people around but ask them, you will almost always get a yes. I recommend to anyone who wants to be a leader, serve your people. From my own experience serving is better than ruling.”
Peres instructed that there are three values that we must all follow to live a decent life:
1. The Ten Commandments: “It did in fact become the foundation for the civilized world. Only 172 words and in 3,500 years not one word was changed.
2. We have to learn. Never become satisfied. If a person becomes satisfied, they stop thinking, they stop evolving, and they stop creating. We are evolving creatures and should never give it up our desire to keep on learning. Today science is more important than politics. Never forget that knowledge is the real point of our lives.
3. Seek peace and be peaceful in the world. A peaceful world is a better world.
And speaking of coexistence, when Peres was asked about Pope Francis, he said, “He is the best pope the Jewish people have ever had in 2,000 years. He brought back religion and spiritual meaning to the Church, a pope of values and not a pope of power. When there are so many outbursts of Anti Semitism in Europe, he is an incredible advocate for the Jewish people in Europe and worldwide.
Many questions were asked about Israel’s security, Iran and the Mideast Peace crisis, but he sought to share what lessons he learned in over ninety years on this earth, bearing witness to so many world events and personal encounters.
Reflecting on it all he said, “I think that the problem in life is not what to be but what to do. High rank and titles never impressed me,” Peres said. “They didn’t mean much. I did the greatest things in my life when my titles were low, and wasted my time when my titles were high.”
Peres spoke about his dreams when addressing the U.S. Congress Thursday.
“Many people call me a dreamer. My own first dream was to be a shepherd on a kibbutz. This dream came true. At dawn, I watched the sheep in order not to lose one. At night, I watched the stars in order not to miss one.”
The President of Israel may complete his term at the end of this month, but his star will continue to shine long after he steps down.
And as US Vice President Joe Biden so perfectly put it, “You are truly a force of nature, Mr. President. You are a national treasure to Israel, but also, I would suggest, you are a national treasure to the United States as well.”