November 20, 2018

Some moments with Shimon Peres

1. In 1987, when Shimon Peres was the Foreign Minister in the National Unity Government, I was serving in the Israeli Air Force and was coordinating a high-powered course for high ranking officers. I invited Peres to speak to them and asked him to focus specifically on the strategic threats and challenges Israel is facing in the Middle East.

It was pretty late at night when he arrived, looking tired as always but walking like a young boy. He sat down and pulled out a packette of cigarettes. I told him politely that we had agreed not to smoke in the room, to which he replied “so don’t.” We laughed. He explained that this was his way of focusing. He inhaled, closed his eyes, and started talking like he was in a trance. And instead of strategy and security and threats, he spoke about a Middle East where instead of fighting, people would trade with one another.

The generals gave eachother quick looks, obviously thinking to themselves that “the old man had lost it.” However, as he went on, they started to listen carefully, gradually becoming fascinated. When he said that a successful hotel is worth an armored division, the eyes of these soldiers who had lost so many comrades in war brightened. And this “old man” then went on to speak for three more decades about his vision, long after some of those generals who were present in that room have left us.

2. In 1996, succeeding as prime minister the slain Yitzhak Rabin, Peres faced one of the worst terror waves Israel has ever experienced, with buses were exploding in our cities almost daily. Dismissing my advice not to show up at the gruesome scenes, he insisted on going there, suffering the insults, curses and threat of angry crowds.

Late at night on one of those horrible days, I came to the prime minister’s offices, which seemed deserted. Yet I saw a light coming out of his office, and, upon approaching, I saw him sitting there alone, his face gray and with a somewhat distracted look. What a burden on the shoulders of this man, I thought. He looked at me, and suddenly I had the urge to cheer him up. I said “Prime Minister, I just saw the Jerusalem Police Chief, and he told me that today, the demonstrations against the government wern’t so wild,” (What kind of a comfort is this?, I reflect today.) He became red in the face and banged the table, saying emphatically, “We will defeat this terror and go on making peace.”

3. Again in 1996, I traveled with Peres to Davos, Switzerland, to the World Economic Forum, where the powerful and the rich convene to discuss world affairs. Upon entering the hall, 3,000 people rose as one to give him a standing ovation. Never was I prouder to be an Israeli. Then he gave his New Middle East vision, where Arabs will have jobs and Palestinian kids will have hope. A thunder of applause again. It seems a far cry from the miserable Middle East of today, but without visionaries like Shimon Peres, the future looks even bleaker.

I miss him already.