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The singular Shimon Peres, recounted by an Arab-Israeli diplomat

During a Facebook session Israeli President Shimon Peres held two years ago, interacting with people from all over the world, he was asked about one the biggest mysteries in history: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Peres immediately responded: “The egg, without a doubt,” When his staff asked him how could he know, he replied “Trust me, I was there when it happened.”

There are a few things that make leaders historically great, and two of them are embedded in the story above: First, the fact that he actually used Facebook. Despite being one of the oldest leaders in the world — born between the two world wars — he was certainly the most innovative one. Others much younger dread technology and social media, while he embraced it as a tool to help people communicate directly and build bridges. Others feared changes in science and technology, while he saw them as the key to peace, saying, “Science has no borders and no flags.” And, as President Obama wrote, others said the future belongs to the young, while he said it’s the present that belongs to the young, adding “leave the future to me”.

Secondly, he had humility and never took himself too seriously. His ability to laugh about his age, or to make a funny video of himself job hunting at the end of his presidency, showed that he was less concerned about his prestige or reputation and much more about having a vision and pursuing that vision by getting the job done, putting into action his words “to lead is to serve, not to rule.” Last year I met him at his office and I couldn’t believe it when he – a former president, 92 years old, an international legend — wanted to discuss what we could do to promote Arab-Jewish coexistence in my city, Jaffa. Nothing was too small for a heart so big.

Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of Peres is from May 2014, during his official state visit to Norway, when I was the Israeli acting ambassador (Chargé d'Affaires) in Oslo. President Peres was received with majesty and splendor. After all, he was a founding father of his country, a former prime minister, a visionary, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a president. He was a legend, and he was 91 years old. He had every reason to relax, take it easy, and enjoy the visit.

But he didn’t. Instead, he was in his suit, waiting for me to brief him about the agenda at 6 a.m., and did not end his working day before 10 p.m. He made every meeting substantive, was never satisfied with niceties. He was vigorous and graceful, and everywhere he spoke — at the Nobel Peace Center, at the Royal Palace and elsewhere — he inspired audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

And yet he managed to surprise even the people closest to him. According to the protocol, the president, alongside the King Harald V of Norway, was supposed to lay a wreath under the Lone Soldier Memorial Statue. Before doing so, he was first to inspect the royal guard, which was standing in a line opposite the statue, and then — after walking all the way to the end —  walk back to the middle of the guard line and from there to the opposite side and lay the wreath. During the preparatory meetings, there was a concern that it might be too long of a walk — there are tens of soldiers, and he was 91 years old. So we asked our Norwegian counterparts to make it so that the king and the president would inspect only half the guard, and then go to other side to lay the wreath. They understood and agreed.

The day came, President Peres and King Harald were walking and inspecting the guard. Upon reaching the middle, King Harald began moving towards the statue as agreed, but suddenly President Peres continued forward, insisting on inspecting and greeting every single soldier in the guard. To our amazement, the king and the president continued all the way to the end of the line, walked back to the middle — following the original protocol — and only then went to lay down the wreath. We looked at each other in disbelief, and with a great sense of pride.

At that moment I realized that I was witnessing a wonder. In that small gesture, he showed that even as a man of immense contributions and achievements, he never took shortcuts, always demanding of himself what he expected of others – even if it came with difficulty. Especially if it came with difficulty. 

One may agree or disagree with his views, but there can be no doubts about the greatness of this man who dedicated his life for a vision of an Israel and a Middle East that is prosperous, tolerant and peaceful. He worked hard and relentlessly; he believed in people more than people believed in him, and he always had hope, never gave up — not when inspecting the Norwegian guard, and certainly not when our future was on the line. As he once said: “For me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic”.

May his memory be a blessing upon us all, and may his soul rest in peace.


George Deek is a diplomat at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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