At 80th Birthday Bash, Peres Tells Sharon to Act, and Labor Will Follow

Shimon Peres is using a gala bash for his 80th birthday to call for renewed unity and moderation in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

In a speech Sunday honoring Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered what many here interpreted as an implied invitation to the Labor Party to join the government coalition.

On Monday, Peres, chairman of the Labor Party, responded by telling Sharon he would have Labor’s support if he acted immediately to remove Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

“You know we have no future in the Gaza Strip. You know it deep in your heart — it can’t be otherwise,” Peres said in remarks addressed to Sharon, who was sitting in the audience of the peace symposium at Tel Aviv University.

“You know we have no choice, and a Palestinian state will be established,” Peres continued. “If such a state isn’t established, we will lose the demographic battle with the Palestinians. Any delay is catastrophic for both us and the Palestinians, costing lives, money, the anxiety of mothers and the sorrow of fathers.”

Asked about Peres’ comments, a senior political source close to Sharon told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “The prime minister has mentioned he is willing to make painful concessions. Peres wants to do everything immediately and Sharon says we have to stretch it out over time.”

Peres also had words of advice for the Palestinians.

“I say to the Palestinians . . . you don’t have a lot of time for terrorism,” Peres said. “If you go on with terrorism, you will be the world’s next target.”

Earlier in the day, Peres had told an audience of elder statesmen and other glitterati that making peace is more difficult than making war.

“When it comes to war, all of us are united,” Peres said. “When it comes to peace, it is very complicated. While war winds up with victory, peace requires concessions. And who wants that?”

It was music to the ears of international guests that included Bill Clinton, who on Sunday took the stage to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” with a Jewish-Arab children’s choir.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also flew to Israel for Peres’ 80th birthday bash — but not without criticism from some who objected to Peres’ leftist politics. In response, Hoenlein emphasized the importance of the Jewish tradition of respecting fellow human beings and extolled Peres’ 60 years of contributions to Israeli society.

That the two-day symposium-cum-party coincided approximately with the 10th anniversary of the now-tattered Oslo accords was lost on no one — least of all Peres, whose reward for brokering them was the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

To nods of approval from fellow panelists Mikhail Gorbachev, F.W. de Klerk, and Northern Ireland troubleshooter David Trimble, Peres took issue with Israel’s decision this month to “remove” Arafat in principle.

“I believe that it was right to give Arafat the Nobel,” Peres said, enumerating the Palestinian leader’s Oslo-era undertakings to recognize the Jewish state, abandon terrorism and negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of the pre-1967 borders.

Many Israeli and international observers, however, believe Arafat’s pledges were glaringly insincere, as evidenced by the continuing record of Palestinian terrorism.

Peres, who is widely considered the last hope of Israel’s beleaguered peace camp, lamented the “feeling in the country that if we get rid of Arafat it will solve the problem.”

Peres rapped Arafat for the “mistake” of not dismantling Palestinian terrorist organizations as required by Oslo and its diplomatic offspring, such as the recent U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

Yet he dismissed terrorism as a passing phase in the march of enlightenment — “a protest by an outgoing generation not to let an incoming generation take over.”

Such sentiments did not sit well with some 200 right-wing protesters gathered outside — nor, perhaps, with Sharon, who has made the war on Palestinian terrorism his life’s objective.

But Sharon, a sabra soldier who spent decades sparring amiably with the urbane, Polish-born Peres, showed no signs of displeasure. At Sunday’s keynote session, he even said he and Peres could one day “work together again” — which many Israeli commentators took as a signal of another national unity government in the making.

Peres bestowed on Sharon a simple benediction: “Do not despair.”

Two hours’ drive and a diplomatic world away, in the isolation of his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat also had a birthday greeting for Peres: “We are still committed to peace and we hope that you give all your effort to the peace activists in Israel.”

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