After seven decades serving his country and having held every major government portfolio, Shimon Peres could be forgiven were he preparing to take a well-deserved break after his presidency, writes Justin Cohen.
But, as leading figures from politics and showbusiness lined up to celebrate his 90th birthday this week, the world’s oldest head of state signalled his readiness to continue working for his country well after his latest role ends next summer.
“There is no greater privilege than serving your people,” he told the Jewish News in an exclusive interview. “I will continue to serve my people in whatever way I can.”
Despite having won the admiration of world leaders and even the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1994, Peres – whose Facing Tomorrow conference opened on Tuesday –underlined his focus on the future. “I don’t spend time looking back and remembering,” was the blunt response when asked about his greatest achievement.
“I hope my greatest achievement will come tomorrow and I hope to see Israel living in peace with all our neighbours,” he said.
While some prominent members of Israel’s government have questioned whether Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace and the Palestinians have refused to negotiate without a settlement freeze, Peres said: “I believe peace is possible and in the interests of both us and the Palestinians. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have publically expressed their support for a two-state solution. The differences between us are not that great and they can be overcome.”
Turning to domestic matters, the president had harsh words for those in Britain at the forefront of hostility towards Israel. “I think some people lack an awareness and knowledge regarding the details of the situation here,” he said. “In places where passion runs high, that passion should be focused on finding solutions, not exacerbating conflict, on bringing people together, not dividing them, and on looking to the future rather than the past.”
His words come amid hostile motions from unions, a strident academic boycott campaign that contributed to Stephen Hawking withdrawing from this week’s Presidential conference and concern over the climate on some British campuses, where talks by senior Israeli officials have been severely disrupted.
Peres added: “Our relations with the UK government are excellent, as are relations between the Jewish community and the government. Within those frameworks we should discuss ways to ensure that dialogue and discussion can be held freely in the UK without fear and with a focus on finding the solution that both Israelis and Palestinians desire – the two state solution.”
During the interview, Peres – who Bill Clinton this week hailed as a “legend” – also called for Jews around the world to focus on “what unites us”. While he did not say if he felt personally troubled when diaspora Jewry criticises Israeli policy, he said: “The greatest contribution of the Jewish people to the world is dissatisfaction. We are never happy with the way the world is but care about how it should be. We should all be focused on what unites us rather than what divides us. I would like to see the Jewish people united around three principles of Judaism; the yearning for peace, the pursuit of knowledge and our ancient moral call.”
He urged Jews worldwide to focus on “striving to make the world better through science and technology, but also through human kindness”.
The interview came as Israel and the world speculated on the impact the election of Iran’s president Hassan Rowhani might have on the country’s approach, including its nuclear programme. Peres said: “I know what the new leader has declared and I won’t go beyond his declarations. He says he won’t adopt extreme policies. In my opinion, the supreme leader today is the people and not the leader.”
Peres said Iranians deserve leadership that heeds their call for freedom and for their country to be a “productive player in the global community, not an antagonist”.
But he warned: “Ahmadinejad spent billions on building an idol of uranium, and what for? It brought the economy to its knees. There is a lack of food, young people are leaving, and Iran has become the centre of terror, they hang people in the streets and arrest innocent people. What for?”
The Iranian issue, along with the push for peace talks, is sure to continue to dominate the agenda as Israel’s elder statesman enters his 91st year and final 12 months as president – as tragically, it has for all too many years of his public service.