Los Angeles — When Jason Alexander, the veteran actor from the 1990s hit TV series “Seinfeld,” met Shimon Peres at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 8, it was, at first, as though Alexander were channeling his old character, George Costanza.
“Happy Purim!” he exclaimed, immediately launching into a comedy routine. Then, commenting on the heavy security presence, he said, “I had to give them the names of my rabbi, my cantor — and my mohel….”
It was the last leg of Peres’s visit to the United States, and for a moment the gathering, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Consulate, seemed headed in the direction of yet another Hollywood roast for an aging legend. But Alexander quickly turned elegiac, paying tribute to the 88-year-old Israeli president by citing the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s oft-quoted motto: “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”
Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was paying a sobering visit to Washington, Israel’s most honored statesman abroad traveled to America’s sunny West Coast, at the far end of the American Dream. It was an odd visit against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s Washington trip, hovering, as it did, somewhere between counterpoint harmony and outright dissonance with Netanyahu’s doomsday message.
Peres’s journey, which began earlier in New York, came at a surprising juncture in his long and storied yet still unfinished political life. According to the recent annual Purim poll conducted by the Israeli daily paper Haaretz, Peres, who lost every one of the five general election campaigns he waged as leader of Israel’s Labor Party, is now his country’s most beloved leader. Suddenly, the man with the hangdog eyes, long tagged as Israel’s inveterate political loser, is united with the man lionized abroad, whose stellar achievements behind the scenes date back to Israel’s founding.
But in Los Angeles, the gathering gloom of the Iran crisis and turmoil in neighboring Arab countries overshadowed the early hawk who helped build Israel’s military and nuclear might before undergoing a conversion to a dovish wooer of a peace.
Pessimists abounded. “He armed the Palestinian Authority and look at them now,” said Orit Arfa, the Zionist Organization of America’s western regional director, attending the gathering at the Beverly Hilton. “Things have not gone well since Oslo.”
Arfa was excoriating Israel’s 1993 agreement with the Palestinians, which Peres made happen. Now, almost 20 years later, in a divisive U.S. election year, those distrusting President Obama’s support for Israel are unhappy with Peres the dove, who characterized Israel’s security relationship with the United States, in an interview with Charlie Rose, as “the best we’ve ever had.”
Throughout his tour, Peres, whose post as president is symbolic and, in principle, nonpolitical, shrugged off attempts to drag him into the war drum circle. He bridled during an onstage interrogatory by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who tried to pin him down on a solo Israeli strike at Iran. “There are many ways of dealing with it,” Peres answered curtly, “but we don’t need a public debate beforehand.”