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.”
If that left his audience dissatisfied, Peres was unperturbed. “Israel’s great gift to the world is dissatisfaction,” he told the Beverly Hilton crowd. “The minute you become satisfied with the world, you stop being a Jew.”
His arrival in Los Angeles coincided by chance with the opening of the Israeli movie “Footnote” in American theaters. The film, nominated for an Academy Award, is ostensibly about a talmudic scholar whose lifetime of diligent work earns him a coveted, long-sought prize — the Israel Prize — only to discover in the end that, to his chagrin, the prize is meaningless. The film’s last uttered word is “hatikvah,” an allusion to Israel’s national anthem, revealing in a bitter light the allegory’s actual subject: Israel itself.
If the Nobel laureate, a bookish intellectual descended from talmudic scholars, shares similar feelings in the twilight of his own career, he did not let on. The achievement of the 1993 Oslo Accords, for which his Nobel Prize was awarded, stands out in stark relief against all the troubles since then, and against the looming conflict with Tehran, rendering the prize, much like the one in “Footnote,” as a sad footnote in history.
Yet, Peres remained a study in clashing realities. The inevitable toll of age was clear in his diminished physical energy, his slow step and minimized scheduling. The man himself continued to look brightly forward. His outlook was manifest during an unusual series of stops along the West Coast. During a tour of Facebook’s headquarters in Northern California’s Menlo Park, guided by company founder Mark Zuckerberg, Peres’s own new Facebook page was unveiled. The page featured a Peres invitation seeking “friends” for Israel from around the world. It was the Internet world, one without borders, anti-terrorist barriers or checkpoints.
With Google’s billionaire co-founder Sergey Brin at his next stop, Peres peered via satellite at Eretz Yisrael, zooming in on the Western Wall and other landmarks in a virtual tour of places that in person would have required mobilization of the Jewish state’s security apparatus.
Peres showed a grandfatherly satisfaction in the Jewish ingenuity of Facebook and Google’s young founders. The Silicon Valley visit allowed Peres not only to profess his faith in high tech’s potential for transformative socio-political change, but also to bask in a reflection of Israel’s own high-tech reputation as Start-up Nation, a passionate pursuit for all of Peres’s life, and one indisputable victory, after all.
While pundits pondered the Iran crisis in the wake of Netanyahu’s weekend summit with Obama, Peres spent the second day of his Tinseltown tour visiting DreamWorks Animation, the house that Shrek built — but not exactly to pitch a sequel to “The Prince of Egypt,” the studio’s debut 1998 biblical epic. There was, instead, a subtly supportive, if indirect, friendly glance toward the president back east, counterbalancing Netanyahu’s sometimes tense relationship with him.
Peres’s lunch with DreamWorks SKG co-founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in the studio commissary also included a top-rank cohort of studio execs and celebs, among them Billy Crystal and Barbra Streisand. The Hollywood royalty shmooze incidentally brought together an influential, high-profile cabal of Obama’s strongest show business supporters.
Peres’s L.A. visit concluded with a Sunday morning breakfast attended by leading members of the city’s Latino community and a smattering of local Democratic politicos. Hosted by the Israeli Consulate and media mogul Haim Saban, a generous supporter both of Israel and the Democratic Party, the crowd included such celebrities as actor Andy Garcia, producer Moctesuma Esparza, dueling Jewish Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel.
Peres was introduced by California State Assembly Speaker John Perez (“We still haven’t agreed as to who has it spelled right,” Peres kidded). A question from the audience about Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, an antagonist toward Israel, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro drew condemnation for the former (“Look what he is doing to the Venezuelan people,” Peres said.) and some faint praise for the latter, a man close to Peres in age. Castro was an “intellectual,” Peres said, and Castro’s recent comments criticizing Iranian leaders for anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial were “impressive.” Peres seemed to hint that perhaps the two longtime players on the world stage might have had something to say to each other. “But it’s too late,” he said. Too late to change anything now. What’s done is done.
With those pronouncements, the elder statesmen strode from the room amid a phalanx of security guards. In the spring he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian honor, and something to look forward to.
Contact Rex Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Shimon Peres’ Facebook page trailer: