On Tuesday night Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma hall was packed for Shimon Peres’s lavish, nationally-televised, ninetieth birthday party. I was fortunate to be in the audience and enjoy the remarkable cast of world leaders, Hollywood celebs, Israeli troubadours, politicians – and of course Barbra Streisand’s heartfelt tribute to our venerated President.
And yet now that the show is over, I am left a bit troubled at who wasn’t on stage or even in the audience. The festivities were not just a salute to an extraordinary life; they were a celebration of the peaceful vision that Peres has come to personify. So why did I not see a single Arab in attendance? No Arab Knesset members or mayors; no Palestinian poets or professors; And why did no Arab leader think to join the chorus of congratulations from across the planet that resonated on the auditorium’s big screen?
Before, I explore this vexing question, it’s important to set a context. Some of the more derisive Israeli pundits felt that the birthday gala was “over the top,” representing a cult of personality more becoming of a North Korean leader than one in the third Jewish commonwealth. But I actually felt quite comfortable, indeed uplifted by the festivities, especially when I recall how Israel’s previous president so egregiously disgraced the office. Against all odds, not only did we manage to select a truly remarkable person as president – the country also has the pride (and generous private donations) to put together a world-class production unabashedly honoring someone whose career literally is a reflection of the nation’s complex, but miraculous history.
Peres deserves the recognition. To understand just how exceptional a figure he is, one must watch the man in action on the international stage. Once I was part of a government delegation that Peres headed to the United Nations Sustainability Summit, attended by over 100 world leaders. As always, Peres was magnificent: erudite, thoughtful, articulate and funny. The same plenary session that booed American Secretary of State Colin Powell stood up and cheered Peres’s speech about meeting global environmental challenges, notwithstanding Israel’s pariah status at the U.N.
We left Johannesburg on a 9 a.m. flight. By then, the indefatigable eighty-year old had managed to hold meetings with three heads of states prior to departure: When Tony Blair told the crowd last night that Peres has the best sound bites on the planet “including the maestro himself, Bill Clinton” he wasn’t exaggerating. “I just sat with my good friend the President of Iceland,” Peres quipped to the adoring delegation when he got on the plane. “He reminded me that while we are the ‘chosen’ people – he represents the ‘frozen’ people.”
But Peres’s stature only grew iconic when he came to symbolize Israel’s aspirations for peace. Cynics argue that after years of taking hard-line, right-wing positions, it was political exigency that forced him to redefine himself as a “dove” and distinguish himself from his hawkish political rival, Menahem Begin. I would like to think that the transformation was more the result of his sharp analytical mind, pragmatic orientation and status as a protégé of Ben Gurion – who got “the vision thing.”
The mantra of a “New Middle East” and the unfailing optimism about a harmonious region have come to define the man. Peres deserves his Nobel Prize, not so much for initiating the Oslo process in the 1990s, but for maintaining the ember of hope, almost single handedly, when peace negotiations went south and prospects for reconciliation seemed increasingly ridiculous. Sadly, there is no comparable figure in the Arab world.
The most moving moment in a very full evening was a film clip showing an intervention by Peres’s Peace center that succeeded in rushing a critically ill infant from Hebron to an Israeli hospital for emergency surgery that saved his life. That was ten years ago, and the infant, now a healthy young boy, appeared on stage and enthusiastically thanked the President for saving his life.
It was the only Arabic spoken all night and it highlighted the potential benefits that peace can bring the region. The problem is that symbolic “people-to-people” initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians have never been in short supply. What has been lacking is courageous leadership – in Israel, but even more so among Palestinians who realize that in peace negotiations, perfection is indeed the enemy of the good. How the map of a final agreement will look is more or less clear to all sides. The time has come for a leap of faith.
Right-wing Minister Naftali Bennet also attended last night’s gala event. Having compared the Palestinians to a sliver of glass the buttox only a day before, he clearly was not enthusiastic about the litany of pronouncements regarding the future Palestinian State and the boisterous sing-along to “give peace a chance.” Undoubtedly he took some comfort in the fact that there were no Arab leaders in the front row singing with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton or even skyping in, as the G-8 leaders managed to do.
The late King Hussein of Jordan might have come to this kind of a party. It would only have taken a twenty-five minute helicopter ride for his son Abdullah to hop over from Amman to Jerusalem. Abu Mazen could have driven in from Ramallah in just fifteen to pay tribute to the world’s most tireless advocate for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the present heads of state in the Middle East couldn’t find the time. Shimon Peres is ninety years old. How long can he wait for the Palestinians to join the celebration?