NEW YORK (JTA) — The event at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y was billed as the launch of a national tour to promote the publication of Shimon Peres’ official biography, the life story of the last active Israeli politician whose career extends back before the establishment of the state. In fact, however, the tour had kicked off two hours earlier Feb. 27 at a reception in honor of Peres at France’s stately consulate opposite Central Park. That Peres, 83, a renowned Francophone, would choose to launch his book tour at the consulate of a foreign government instead of one of New York City’s most venerable Jewish cultural institutions says something about the circles in which he has mingled most comfortably in nearly six decades of public life. After all, his success in forging a military alliance with France in the 1950s, when Peres was director-general of the Defense Ministry, was integral to Israel’s security in the early years of the state. The partnership brought Israel not only advanced jet fighters but support in building its nuclear reactor at Dimona.Still, despite having served in nearly every high political office in Israel, Peres has been more widely admired abroad than at home. In Israel he is infamous for losing elections, most recently his stunning loss to Moshe Katsav in the 2000 Knesset vote for the presidency. In a conversation with his biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, in the Y’s wood-paneled auditorium, Peres glided over such difficult moments in his career, focusing on his early successes as a globe-trotting defense envoy and his vision of a new Middle East that can overcome past grievances. Peres regaled the audience with tales of his meetings with Jimmy Hoffa (“He was very honest with us”) and President Kennedy (“He had a very sharp mind”); of negotiating arms deals at the Tropicana Club in Havana; and learning to drink whiskey at Harvard University. He also showed off his legendary gilded tongue and his ability to manipulate difficult questions, a talent he honed during years navigating the diplomatic storms of the Middle East. Peres, now the vice prime minister, offered something for everyone, hawks and doves.He called President Bush’s decision to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “very courageous,” while urging sanctions as the preferred method of containing Iran’s nuclear aspirations. He defended Israel’s security fence as a “very effective” means to deter terrorists while promising that one day “the wall will disappear and bridges will be built.” And he called the 2005 Gaza withdrawal a success while praising the evacuated settlers as pioneers. Peres’ declaration of admiration for Bush drew applause. Saying “people need to live together as they are” drew even more. He talked of a “silent revolution” brewing among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and predicted that their pursuit of higher education — 19,000 are enrolled in Israeli universities, Peres said — will shift their focus from making war to making wealth, a process in which Peres has an unshakeable faith. “Since the Second World War, everything of importance was done by the economic locomotives, not by military attacks,” he said. “Politics is about borders — it’s very hard to change. Economics is about relationships, which are very easy to change.” If Peres is, as Ben-Zohar described him, an “incurable optimist,” it’s partly because of his remarkable immunity from the past. “I don’t have the slightest interest in the past,” Peres said. “I tell our children, ‘Don’t study history, it’s waste of time. You can’t change it.’ ” For Peres, the only thing that really matters is the future. Asked about his greatest accomplishment, the octogenarian replied, “The one I shall achieve tomorrow.”
Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.