Shimon Peres died this morning in Israel at the age of 93. Marilyn Berger writes his obituary for the New York Times. Tom Gross corrects the Times obituary here. Berger’s obituary is posted with a video on Peres’s life and career with commentary by Clyde Haberman. Raphael Ahren looks back at Peres’s long career for the Times of Israel here. On a personal note, I was invited to attend Israel’s Fourth Presidential Conference in June 2012 in Jerusalem. In my concluding post on the conference I paid tribute to President Peres. This is what I wrote:
In its four years of existence the conference has become an event. It attracts a field of distinguished speakers addressing matters of politics, public policy, business and the future. The theme of this year’s conference was Tomorrow. I believe the conference is open to the public; more than 4,000 members of the public attended.
The conference is deeply reflective of President Shimon Peres. President Peres has been active in Israel’s history and public life in one capacity or another roughly forever. In his remarks at the conference on Thursday morning President Peres referred to David Ben-Gurion as his mentor. He has even written a new biography of Ben-Gurion. Among the founding generation of Israel, President Peres must be the last still active in Israel’s public life. Despite his characteristic focus on Tomorrow, President Peres carries a lot of Israel’s history in his bones.
In the course of his long public life President Peres seems to have met and befriended just about everybody. See, for example, his memoir Battling For Peace. In any event, there can’t have been many invited speakers who declined the opportunity to appear at this year’s conference under President Peres’s auspices. Among the distinguished speakers at this year’s conference, for example, were Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Cisco’s John Chambers, and the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Among the few members of the world community who might not have responded favorably to an invitation from President Peres is Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom Peres had a few choice words at Davos in 2009 in one of the transcendent moments of his career. Peres’s 2009 remarks are available on YouTube in three videos here, here, and here.
Many of the conference speakers seem to have been handpicked by President Peres. Here I am thinking of Princeton’s Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman, Harvard’s Michael Sandel, and others including the business leaders. The conference seems to me to reflect President Peres’s vision of Israel’s future in the Middle East. It is a somewhat utopian vision, as set forth in his 1993 book, The New Middle East.
Reflecting President Peres, the conference presents something of an intellectual feast. It tilts to the left. It envisions Israel as a model for the region. To speak colloquially, it is big into the peace process. It focuses on the future. It is celebratory of technology and entrepreneurship. It is an appealing vision, and in promoting it through the conference as Israel’s president (i.e., the country’s ceremonial head of state), he is doing so in a manner that brings distinction and honor to the country.
President Peres spoke at events throughout the conference. On Thursday morning he spoke at a plenary session panel on the subject of learning from mistakes. It was an interesting panel.
President Peres of course won a Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the Oslo Accords that resulted in the return of Yasser Arafat from his Tunisian exile to rule over the Arabs on the West Bank and Gaza. I think this was a profound mistake deriving from idealism and cynicism, but you can be sure that President Peres does not count it as such.
Indeed, President Peres glancingly reaffirmed it in his comment: “In order to make peace, you have to close your eyes. You cannot make love or peace with open eyes.” I am quite sure that this is a quote that will not bear comparison with: “At the summit true politics and strategy are one.” Ruthie Blum collected more quotes from President Peres’s Thursday morning remarks here.
English must be President Peres’s
third fifth language, after Russian, Polish and Hebrew, among others, yet he is eloquent in it. He speaks without notes in thoughts stated in the form of aphorisms. His intellectual and verbal facility are staggering.
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The organizers of the Tomorrow 2012 Presidential Conference in Jerusalem set up a bloggers only meeting with President Peres following his plenary panel Thursday morning. All the questions were respectful and good to one degree or another. All of us who had the audience with Peres expressed appreciation to him for creating the conference.
My hosts gave me the honor of asking the first question. I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if he would grab my phone and snap a photo of me asking the question. I didn’t realize until I got home and reviewed the photos on my phone that he had done so (photo above).
Citing a recent CNN interview with him, I asked President Peres about Iran and started the video camera running on my phone a few seconds into his answer. I am posting the video because what I caught is still of interest. I think Peres’s answer stands the test of time. Please turn up the sound and give it a listen.
I am deeply saddened by his death. Shimon Peres was indeed the last surviving founding father of Israel and a remarkable man in his own right. May his memory be for a blessing.