Peres the prophet

This story has been updated with a correction.

When Shimon Peres appeared at the Beverly Hilton on March 8 before an audience of more than 1,000 Israel supporters, the Israeli president received two standing ovations — before he even uttered a single word.

Peres had just established his own Facebook page at the social networking company’s Bay Area headquarters the day before, and he had a solid schedule of events ahead of him in the Southland. Over the next four days, Peres would meet with some of Los Angeles’ most influential leaders, with a special focus on members of the entertainment industry and the burgeoning Latino community.

Coming at the tail end of a nationwide tour, the 88-year-old Nobel laureate delivered his message of peace and unity to Los Angeles and won fans among every audience he encountered — including some who hadn’t always seen eye to eye with Peres.

“Personally, when he was a political leader, I didn’t agree with many of his political positions,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said. “But today, as president of Israel, he has fulfilled that role in an amazing manner.”

Because Israel’s government is a parliamentary democracy, its leader is the prime minister. Peres has twice filled that role, but today, as president, he is a head of state and represents the Israeli people in a largely ceremonial role, not unlike the queen of England.

In his remarks that Thursday evening to a ballroom packed with members and leaders of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, Peres gave diplomatic and thoughtful responses to questions that would have been difficult for a less-accomplished statesman to answer.

And while his onstage interview with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown ranged across a variety of topics, it seemed that when the conversation veered toward something overtly political, Peres often demurred, proffering points of general agreement and less controversial observations instead.

“Like all processes, it has problems,” Peres said in response to one question about the seemingly distant prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “But that’s not a reason to give up the hope.”

Even so, a number of Peres’ statements that evening appeared to be, in tone at least, different from the party line of the current Israeli government — most notably when he expressed a preference for Israel and the United States to allow time for the sanctions against Iran to work before taking any military action against the country’s nuclear facilities.

“I think the president [Obama] made it clear that he will not compromise on the issue of Iran,” Peres said in his characteristic patient cadence, sounding more in line with the American president’s preference for a non-violent resolution to the conflict than with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertions that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.

“It’s a danger to all of the world, not just to Israel,” Peres continued, “and I think that while everyone is looking for differences, the basis is common and agreed.”

The Angelenos Peres met over his four days in the city were thrilled to have him in town, particularly the Israeli-Americans. “He’s one of the biggest leaders Israel had in its history, and it was very important to be part of his historic visit in L.A.,” Sagi Balasha, CEO of the Israeli Leadership Council, said.

The audience may have been content to allow Peres to suggest that there was general agreement between the United States and Israel on the Iranian nuclear threat. In fact, the elements made public of the meetings Peres and Netanyahu each had with Obama earlier in the week, as well as the three leaders’ speeches at the annual American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, revealed significant differences in the situations that could trigger either an American or an Israeli strike on Iran.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who attended the March 8 event, took note of Peres’ comparatively generous approach to the current American administration.

Peres “can come in and speak eloquently of Barack Obama, which no Israeli governmental leader is doing, frankly, because he doesn’t have to be as political as when he was in politics,” said Yaroslavsky, who first met Peres in 1991.

From left: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Consul General David Siegel attend a March 8 event hosted by the Jewish community, the Consulate General of Israel and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Historically, there have been Israeli presidents who have served while the Knesset was controlled by a prime minister from the opposing party. But according to David Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history, none of those presidents had Peres’ political heft.

Peres “has played the role [of president] pretty well, doing as best he possibly can to avoid trampling the toes of his prime minister,” Myers said.

But although Peres might be nudging the customary boundaries of his position, Myers said that in the face of a possible Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, an action whose consequences are largely unpredictable, the Israeli president might consider taking even more drastic action.

“Whether or not it would be better for Peres to step out of the role and assert his opinion on this important issue is a reasonable question to ask,” he added. Myers said he had been invited to Peres’ Thursday evening appearance, but hadn’t been able to attend.

The event was organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Consulate and was co-sponsored by six other community groups, including the Israeli Leadership Conference (ILC) and StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy and education group.

In its work advocating on behalf of Israel, StandWithUs often stakes out positions that lie closer to the hawkish side of the political spectrum. CEO Roz Rothstein, who praised Peres’ speech as “extremely profound” and approvingly Tweeted a few of Peres’ remarks as he was delivering them, said she saw the message he was delivering as consistent with her organization’s.

She pointed to the video released on March 4, “Be My Friend for Peace,” which remixes remarks by Peres with a techno beat.

“Be my friend for peace, I want to hear your voice,” Peres says in the video, which was viewed 188,000 times in its first eight days on YouTube. “Be my friend, share peace. Speak up and change the world.”

“He’s saying that peace is possible, but you have to have a partner on the other side,” Rothstein said. “Between the lines, he’s asking for a partnership. That’s the way I read it.”

Nearly all who heard Peres welcomed his focus on the future — even those whose left-leaning politics led them to fondly recall the days when Peres was still involved in governing Israel. “I only wish that he had more influence in the halls of power,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and a member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet. “Israel certainly needs his wisdom, honesty and calm presence in these most difficult and trying times,” Grater added.

Not all who came in contact with Peres were looking for the Israeli president to venture beyond his traditional, strictly ceremonial role.

“When President Peres wanders into the territory of war, peace and politics, it is painfully apparent he has not learned from his mistakes,” Orit Arfa, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s western region, wrote in a statement e-mailed after his March 8 speech. “He continues to promote his failed vision of a ‘two-state solution’ and ‘land for peace.’ The President refuses to admit the truth that Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Party are no better than Hamas.”

Most of those who encountered Peres in Los Angeles welcomed his optimistic message and were inclined to believe that his statements were aligned with their own political positions.

At Peres’ final event of the Los Angeles visit, a breakfast on March 11 for about 120 political, religious and business leaders, most of the attendees were from the region’s Latino community.

Among the Jewish leaders present, in addition to staff from the Israeli consulate, were representatives from The Federation, American Jewish Committee (AJC) and AIPAC, as well as many people who participated in a summit for Latino and Jewish leaders last September.

Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli, who will return to Israel this summer after four years in Los Angeles, dedicated a great deal of his time and energy to building bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities here.

The developing alliance between Latinos and Jews in Los Angeles was the subject of a Jewish Journal cover story last March, and looking around the well-secured room on an upper floor of the Beverly Hilton, Rabbi Randy Brown, assistant director of interreligious and intergroup relations with AJC, noted just how broad-based the coalition building effort has become. “It’s theological; it’s commerce; it’s political; it’s human relations — all in the same room,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Pastor Carlos Ortiz, the national Hispanic coordinator for Christians United for Israel (CUFI), asked Peres what members of his community could do for the Jewish people, “today and in the future.”

CUFI, which counts more than 950,000 members across the country, was founded by Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Tex., who also founded John Hagee Ministries, which has contributed over $60 million to charitable causes across Israel. Those donations primarily support organizations operating in Israel, but a small number—in 2006, a JTA report estimated about five percent – of the organization’s funding goes to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A sports complex in Ariel, a city-sized settlement in the West Bank, is named in Hagee’s honor.

“We used to live on the land,” the Nobel laureate said, beginning a lengthy, somewhat circuitous answer to Ortiz’s question. “The land was something tangible, measurable. We divided pieces of land; most of the wars in history were because of land.

“Now,” Peres continued, “we make our living not out of the land, but out of science.”

Peres concluded his response by asking Ortiz to “build your contribution, your togetherness and your relationship.”

“He really wrapped it up at the end,” Ortiz said after the event. “He said the best thing you can do is unite.” And while uniting might not be possible in some other countries, Ortiz said, it is a freedom available to him as an American.

“Right here, we can unite,” he said, “that’s why we are Christians United for Israel.”

If what Ortiz heard was Peres calling for more unity, the single most common observation made about Peres during his visit had to do with his preternatural optimism.

“Peres is a wise man,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said after the March 8 event. “He’s lived a great deal of our history, and he’s reflected deeply on what history has taught us. His refusal to succumb to pessimism and cynicism is remarkable. That’s the prophet in him — the ability to continue to hope, to envision peace, to demand better of us.”