NEW YORK (JTA) – As I sat in the press area at a luncheon Wednesday to honor Israeli President Shimon Peres, the prime minister’s race of 1996 seemed like a long time ago.
Back in ’96 Peres, the prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, commanded a strong lead over Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and it seemed as if Peres couldn’t lose the race. He had become prime minister following the assassination in November 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin, and Netanyahu was one of the people Rabin supporters fingered for fueling the hateful rhetoric that, they said, inspired the slaying of Rabin.
Public sympathy in Israel for Rabin’s legacy was short lived, however. A brutal campaign of Palestinian terrorism sponsored by Hamas and its allies in the lead-up to the vote helped swing Israeli public opinion rightward in the election, and Netanyahu ultimately eked out a victory by less than 1 percentage point in what was Israel’s first direct election of prime minister.
In 1996, Netanyahu’s skepticism beat out Peres’ optimism.
Thirteen years later, after more failed peace bids, another intifada, and wars with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, hardly anyone in Israel is an optimist anymore. Israeli skepticism has decimated the country’s traditional left wing — Labor is now Israel’s fourth-largest party, and Meretz’s three Knesset seats are but a footnote in parliament — and fueled the rise of a more skeptical, right-wing leadership. And again, in a race for prime minister (though not by direct election), Netanyahu eked out a victory over his somewhat more optimistic chief rival, Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party.
Netanyahu is still a skeptic and Peres is still an optimist, but now the two are partners.
So when Peres came to the United States this week, the Israeli president extended his optimism to his description of his one-time rival.
"In my judgment, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is going to make peace," he predicted Wednesday before a crowd of Jewish organizational officials, diplomats and dignitaries at New York’s Plaza Hotel.
Two days earlier, at the annual policy conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Peres noted that Netanyahu "was at one time my political opponent. Today he is my prime minister. He knows history and wants to make history. In our tradition, making history is making peace, and I am sure that peace is his priority."
On Wednesday, he compared Netanyahu to one-time Likud hard-liner Menachem Begin, to whom Peres also lost a historic election for prime minister (also after succeeding Rabin, when Rabin resigned the post over a financial scandal). Begin pledged during the campaign that he would fill the Sinai with Jewish settlements, but he ended up withdrawing from it in a historic peace deal with Egypt — Israel’s first land-for-peace swap.
Back then, Peres said, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took a one-hour flight to Jerusalem and changed the whole equation; Begin did not ignore the opportunity.
Now, Peres said, there is another moment of change: the alignment of Sunni Arab states against Iran. This presents Israel and its new prime minister with another special opportunity.
"There is an unexpected change on the Arab side. The ambition of Iran to establish an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East alarmed most of the Arabs," Peres said. "Most of the Arabs understand that we are not a problem; we are a friend.
"It is an opportunity; we shouldn’t miss it. I don’t say it will be simple, but the occasion is there," he said. "There is a chance to make peace with all Arab parties. And we are not far away in negotiations with the Palestinians."
Fresh from a meeting in Washington with President Obama, Peres said of the upcoming meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, "I can envisage a great meeting — not a confrontational one — between the American president and the Israeli prime minister."
But Peres spent more time at the luncheon praising the U.S. leader, whom he characterized as "beginning to be a great president of the United States and at the same time a great friend of the State of Israel."
In a one-on-one meeting, Peres said Obama told him that "My top consideration is the security of Israel, and as long as I remain president this will remain a top priority."
Peres asked Obama if he could quote him on it. Obama, Peres said, assented.
Peres also backed Obama’s approach to curbing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"The president says let’s try to stop it by engaging. We say, why not? Let’s try. Engagement is an attempt to achieve a goal," Peres said. "If it will succeed, fine. If not, we shall make another decision."