Director’s Blog: Memories of the Late Shimon Peres

It was my great privilege and honor to have met Shimon Peres, blessed be his memory, on a number of occasions during my life. The first time I met the future Prime Minister and President of the State of Israel was in his office in the famous Labor Party Headquarters on Yarkon Street, just opposite the Sheraton Hotel. For years the Labor Party ran the country from this run down building on one of Tel Aviv’s more colorful streets, but now, like the Labor Party itself, the building is in complete disuse and being torn down. The party moved its headquarters to a poor neighborhood in Tel Aviv, in the 90’s, in a failed attempt to win over the working class. When I met Shimon Peres in his office in the early 80’s he was the head of the Labor Party and, though in the opposition, the Labor Party was still a force with which to be reckoned. I had recently joined the Labor Party and was invited to attend a small meeting of young Kibbutz Movement activists with the Labor Party Chair, who sought to gain our support for his continued leadership of the party against his political rival Yitzchak Rabin. Peres had spent his early political career in the service of the State of Israel, in most part building Israel’s defense force, defense industry and nuclear capabilities. His hawkish outlook even went as far as support for the nascent settlement movement, Gush Emunim, while serving as Minister of Defense in the mid 70’s. By the time of my first encounter with opposition leader Peres, he had already turned a corner in his political outlook, perhaps inspired by the successful Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, concluded by the right wing Likud government, perhaps frightened by the genie of the Jewish settlement movement on the West Bank, he himself had let out of the bottle. The meeting convinced me that Peres was now ready to lead the country to peace with our neighbors. As a member of the Labor Party’s Central Committee, a large unruly body of 1,000 elected representatives of different constituencies, I often had the opportunity to say hello to Mr. Peres during committee conventions.

The next meaningful encounter, however took place in 1991 shortly after the First Gulf War, when a group of residents in the Arava initiated a petition campaign to support the US sponsored Madrid Conference. I was able to present the hundreds of names we gathered to then Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres at a Labor Party meeting and perhaps gave him additional ammunition to argue in favor of Israel’s participation in the conference. Though the conference itself produced little results, it did lead the way to secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and to the Oslo Accords.

Of course the most exciting meeting I had with the late President of Israel was shortly after his election to the Presidency, when he came to visit the Arava Institute. The Arava Institute stands for everything that President Peres envisioned after the Oslo Accords were signed, what he called the New Middle East. Every day, the Arava Institute proves that the dream of a Middle East where Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others work together to make the region peaceful and sustainable while looking for solutions which will improve and enrich our lives, is not just a dream. I was very proud to be able to introduce the students, staff, faculty and alumni to President Peres. In my welcome speech I said: “Though I have met Mr. Peres a number of times in the past, this is the first time I am meeting him as the President of the State of Israel … and it’s about time!” He smiled.

Perhaps, however, the most meaningful encounter I had with the late President was just last year when our Public Council for the Arava Institute met with the former President at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. The Public Council was privileged to meet with the 92 year old President and hear the voice of not only one of Israel’s founders but one of its most eloquent visionaries. At 92, Peres once again looked forward not backward, declaring that the political system which he had devoted his life to serve, was dysfunctional, and that the only way to achieve peace was through high-tech, the internet and the new economy. Politics has nothing to offer the Middle East or the world. The best and the brightest are creating start-ups, not political careers, and in such a world, borders have little meaning. President Peres encouraged us to think out of the box, to not depend on old formulas but to seek alternatives to traditional diplomacy which is now bogged down in a political quagmire.

This year, the Arava Institute launched a new initiative, the Track II Environmental Forum, which brings together environmental experts, researchers and decision makers in a non-government initiated bid to reach agreements on water and other critical environmental resources. Perhaps the chutzpah for this initiative came from that final encounter with Israel’s eternal optimist, the man whose vision helped shape that of the Institute’s. The Arava Institute, the State of Israel, the Jewish people and the world owe a great deal to President Shimon Peres – he will be missed, and his vision of a New Middle East remains forever our North Star.

David Lehrer

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