By Stephen Oryszczuk
Earlier this week, a journalist from Associated Press became one of the last people to interview the legendary Shimon Peres while he was still Head of State.
The journalist later spoke of “a crusader for peace spending his last days in office justifying a war”.
That’s because Peres had just spent much of the last hour defending Israel whilst acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinians.
It was a perfect example of what the Peres presidency may be remembered for: a dove, chirping away among hawks, fiercely protective of its young but happy to share the tree.
His successor, Rubi Rivlin, is one such foreign policy hawk, and will no doubt be the chalk to Peres’ cheese, but he will differ from Peres in another crucial way – Rivlin will keep politics out of the presidency.
There was no such chance with Peres, 91 next week. Having earned the right to speak he sought, without success, to use the presidency to advocate for peace with the Palestinians. This, as with much that he has done, was done with a noble aim.
Those calls will now no longer come from the presidency, because this week calls time on his career. And what a career it has been too. What a life.
He has served as foreign minister, defence minister and prime minister (twice), working with ten US presidents and later becoming a president himself.
He has waged wars (Suez, Yom Kippur) and negotiated peace (Egypt, Oslo). He has stood alone in calling Mahmoud Abbas a “partner for peace” and he has stood front and centre in chastising Iran.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all politics. In later years, the job seemed to become less of a chore when, as Head of State, he got to kiss and greet such stars as Madonna, Shakira, Eva Longoria and Barbra Streisand.
They, like so many world leaders, were wooed by the charm, charisma, stories and sage-like advice of this elder statesman. The more people he met, the more people liked him. For Israel’s PR team, he was good cop to Netanyahu’s bad.
More importantly, he provided a vision that some Jewish community leaders in the UK and elsewhere have noted as lacking with Netanyahu.
It was Peres, for example, who said: “The Palestinians are our nearest neighbours, and I believe they may become our closest friends.” As he said it, the whole world imagined with him, regardless of whether that vision seems currently achievable.
That kind of thinking has won him a Nobel Peace Prize, and has earned him cross-party respect, even from his one-state ideological foes, who this week joined others in tipping their hats to the last of the state’s founding politicians, and to a career that has seen everything from Suez to Syria.
And as he walks out on public office for the last time, little Shimon Peres, son of a lumber merchant from Belarus, will no doubt reflect on how he leaves the State of Israel in a very much stronger position than when he found it.