Tel Aviv – At 87, he is Israel’s rock star politico.
As he presides this week over a third annual star-studded confab called The Israeli President’s Conference (but known simply as The Peres Conference) – a mash-up of world leaders and entertainers, generals and philosophers – Shimon Peres is enjoying an all-time high of popularity, not only around the world but even close to home.
It was not always this way. After a career as a divisive politician and unsuccessful Labor Party candidate – for which he was nicknamed the “loser’’ – Peres, who has held virtually every key cabinet position, has elevated himself from the daily political slog and morphed into Israel’s elder statesmen.
As president he has pitched in to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former rival, as Israel has found itself on the defensive diplomatically over the moribund peace process.
But for the first time since becoming president, a largely ceremonial position, Peres appears to have broken his silence on foreign policy. In an interview last week with Haaretz, he took a not-so-subtle public dig at Netanyahu’s government.
The president was quoted as criticizing the prime minister for “foot dragging’’ on the peace process and for resisting President Barack Obama’s suggestion of negotiating peace based on the 1967 Green Line, with territorial swaps.
“We’re about to crash into the wall. We’re galloping at full speed toward a situation where Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state,’’ Haaretz quoted the president as telling associates. “Whoever accepts the basic principle of the 1967 lines will receive international support from the world… whoever rejects it will lose the world.”
Despite the unclear sourcing of the Haaretz story, the President’s office didn’t issue a denial, leaving Israelis to assume that the report jibes with his opinion.
Amid a vacuum of strong opposition to Netanyahu’s foreign policy, the comment highlights Peres’ unusual standing as one of Israel’s most active presidents: He made a state visit to the U.S. in the spring just weeks before Netanyahu’s recent visit. And in recent months he even met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in London on Netanyahu’s behalf. (Normally, the foreign minister would attend such meetings, but Avigdor Lieberman is seen as too outspoken in his hawkish views to send on key diplomatic missions; he visits Russia often.)
Still, despite the popularity Peres enjoys, he appears to be politicizing the presidency. Which raises the question: Is he still relevant?
On the one hand, anything he says is relevant because his office symbolizes the Israeli consensus. On the other hand, he is limited: taking on Netanyahu in a public debate would erode his public standing, and he would be accused of butting into issues where he doesn’t belong.
“Peres has been transformed in his old age from a divisive and often despised politician into a unifying and beloved president,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
“He restored the dignity of the presidency after the moral disaster of the Katsav era, and for that alone he has earned the gratitude of Israelis,’’ he said, referring to Moshe Katsav, Peres’s predecessor in office who was convicted of rape and sexual assault.
Klein Halevi suggested that in seeking to balance his role of president as unifier with the urgency he feels about the direction of the country, Peres is “taking a big risk. But at his age, maybe that no longer matters to him, and maybe it shouldn’t.”
In a Haaretz public opinion poll from April, Peres’ approval rating reached 72 percent. Netanyahu’s approval rating, by comparison, was well below 50 percent.
“In focus groups people see him as a grandfather figure,” said Dahlia Schiendlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster. “He’s no longer a loser. He is not seen as a self-serving politician. … What he says has credibility, but does it have impact? I’m not so sure. It’s easy to like the presidents because they have little impact and they aren’t seen as having an agenda.
Schiendlin concluded that a president “can contribute to a general atmosphere” but not necessarily change it.”
Peres is not the first to venture into diplomacy as president. Ezer Weizmann met with Yasir Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan’s King Hussein in the 1990s. He also made political remarks that ruffled feathers.
Peres’ comments about the peace process were not surprising. Since the 1980s he has been known as one of Israel’s leading doves and peace visionaries. (He won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, after the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993.)
After the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, Peres moderated his tone when he participated in the government headed by Ariel Sharon. He has further restrained himself as president.
At the opening of this week’s conference he reverted to sounding upbeat, saying the prospects for solving the impasse in peace talks are better than the prospects for a complete meltdown.
Peres is but the latest popular figure to come out against Netanyahu’s foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, three ex-security chiefs who served under the prime minister – former Mossad Director Meir Dagan, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin — have voiced strong criticism of Netanyahu’s policies toward Iran and the Palestinians.
“Four years of self-control and reticence give him more moral force,’’ said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a Bar Ilan University political science professor. He noted that Peres “can no longer be dismissed by the right wing as ‘this is the old Peres coming out and shooting his leftist mouth.’ ”
But Ariyeh Eldad, a Knesset member from the right-wing National Union party, said that the president has seriously undermined Netanyahu’s standing and reverted to his old political ways for which even Labor politicians reviled him. (Yitzhak Rabin once described Peres as a “relentless saboteur.’’)
“He is perceived by the world as someone who represents Israel, and reflects the voice of Israel,’’ Eldad said. “He is weakening the already small staying power of Netanyahu.’’
Chemi Shalev, a political commentator for the daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom, said that Peres and Netanyahu have had ups and downs in their relationship and that Peres may have been frustrated that the prime minister didn’t sign on to President Obama’s peace vision.
But Shalev said Peres held back in his criticism.
“You need a sledge hammer to sway Israeli public opinion,” he observed. “Although he knows how to use a sledge hammer, he didn’t use one.’’