JERUSALEM — Celebrating his 80th birthday this week, Shimon Peres enjoyed what was in many ways his finest hour. His two-day birthday party was, by Israeli standards, a feast fit for a caesar. Never before in the history of the country — and probably never again — had so many foreign leaders and dignitaries traveled so far just to sing “Happy Birthday” to one happy Israeli.
The Peres extravaganza was doubly striking when juxtaposed against the grim atmosphere in which it was held. It was an expensive and merry affair, at a time when most Israelis are in a dark and somber mood, increasingly feeling the pinch of an endless economic recession. Moreover, the gathering of nearly two dozen former and current heads of state, along with hundreds of foreign ministers, top officials, millionaires and celebrities, all in Peres’s honor, only served to highlight by contrast the growing isolation of Israel itself. Not since Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in 1995 had any Israeli managed to unite so much of the world in admiration.
Indeed, only a few short hours before the Peres gala got underway, Israel was getting its knuckles rapped, by a lopsided 133-to-4 United Nations General Assembly majority, for its decision “in principle” to get rid of Yasser Arafat. If just the countries represented at Peres’s birthday party had voted in Israel’s favor, the results would have been radically different.
The Peres bash was a blast from the past, from the heady and hopeful days of the long-gone peace process that Peres himself initiated, when summits were a dime a dozen
and Israel was the undisputed darling, bar none, of most of the international community. Now, as noted in a secret report recently compiled in the Foreign Ministry, Israel faces an Arab world growing increasingly hostile, while Europe is losing its last reserves of patience and goodwill. Only the United States — along with Micronesia and the Solomon Islands — can still be counted on to back Israel in time of need.
Perhaps it was the impressive display of international support for Peres that prompted one of his celebrity guests, Prime Minister Sharon, to suggest publicly for the first time in months that he and Peres might again “join forces” to move the peace process forward. But most political analysts dismissed Sharon’s words as just wishful thinking or a clever public-relations ploy. A new Likud-Labor unity government is simply not in the cards, at least for the time being, analysts agree. Peres seeks to negotiate with Arafat, directly or otherwise — he even suggested this week that Arafat “deserved” the Nobel Peace Prize he won for his role in the now-defunct Oslo accords — while Sharon would rather see him hanging from a tree. Peres would launch an all-out effort to reach an immediate agreement with any willing and able Palestinian, while Sharon intends to wait Arafat out, no matter how long it takes, and to profess loyalty to the road map process, even if it no longer exists.
This is the main reason that after years of hemming and hawing, Sharon has suddenly become a devotee of the so-called separation fence. In lieu of an active peace process, which polls show most Israelis supporting, Sharon’s aides believe that completing the popular fence, or trying to, is the best way to mollify a restive public opinion. To this end Sharon hurriedly dispatched his trusted bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, along with the director-general of the Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron, on a quick trip to Washington this week to try and resolve the conflict with the Bush administration over the fence’s path, especially near the West Bank town of Ariel. The two negotiators succeeded in postponing any decision on the administration threat to cut the cost of the fence from the American loan guarantees to Israel, but did not budge the substantive American opposition to the fence’s deep forays into West Bank territory.
Sharon had tried to circumvent the Ariel obstacle by promising simply to leave the fence unbuilt in the sector facing Ariel, with a yawning gap to be patrolled by beefed-up border guard units. The decision to build a wall with a hole in it has been greeted with derision by the fence’s most active supporters. Government critics portrayed it as yet another step in the Cabinet’s accelerating march of folly, along with the internationally condemned boot-Arafat decision and the billion-shekel cut in social subsidies that was adopted and then quickly scrapped by the Cabinet.
Nonetheless, as Sharon’s spokesmen are quick to point out, Sharon remains Israel’s leader, while Peres, the darling of the international jet set, is the interim leader of a truncated and near-comatose opposition party.
Indeed, some of the most stinging criticism of Peres on his happiest day came from the left, which accused him of kowtowing to Sharon rather than leading an all-out political onslaught against the government’s policies. “The opposition is in a coma,” wrote Aviad Kleinberg in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “and the peace camp is otherwise engaged: Peres is having a party, while (Meretz leader Yossi) Sarid is busy composing poems.” And Yoram Kaniuk, writing in Yediot Aharonot, urged Peres to give Israel a birthday gift: “Do something.”
Peres was also chastised by opponents of government economic policies for putting on such an expensive party, estimated to have cost donors well over $1 million, at a time of growing unemployment and poverty. The main cost of the show put on for Peres’s 3,000 guests at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, as well as the next day’s academic seminar at Tel Aviv University, was donated by Peres’s wealthy friends abroad. Still, the government footed a substantial bill for providing security, employing over 1,200 policemen to keep Peres and his guests safe and sound.
Indeed, there was something symbolic, almost typical, in the very fact that Peres’s birthday party was so completely out of sync with the mood of the Israeli public. Although much of the public’s historic animosity toward Peres has dissipated in recent years — especially since he has been out of office — he can still rub many Israelis the wrong way. To most there is something “un-Israeli” about him.
At heart Peres is a cosmopolitan, basking in the adulation of international decision-makers. He is ranked with the top reformers and peacemakers of our time, alongside the Communism-dismantling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the apartheid-abolishing Fredrik Willem De Klerk of South Africa, both of whom came to Tel Aviv — along with American former president Bill Clinton, who still enjoys rock-star status here — to pay respects to Peres.
Most Israelis, on the other hand, instinctively distrust the world and mistrust its motives. The mistrust is especially high at times like this, when the international community, including the United States, vehemently opposes measures almost universally supported in Israel, including the separation fence and the expulsion of Arafat. If Peres is so popular abroad, most Israelis seem to tell themselves, there must be something wrong with him.
Israelis traditionally also view with suspicion Peres’s oft-expressed love for books and his overpublicized appreciation for culture. There is also derision for his dandy ways — he is an impeccable dresser in a country of well-known shlumps — and for his tireless but often maladroit efforts to turn a clever phrase, such as the cult classic, “You can make an omelet out of eggs, but you can’t make an egg out of omelets.” Besides, despite his 69 years in Israel the Polish-born Peres has yet to master a decent Israeli accent in Hebrew.
But perhaps the most foreign of Peres’s traits, especially these days, is his eternal optimism and his indefatigable ability, as Clinton put it this week, to “come through the window” when all the doors have been shut. Israelis, a gloom-and-doom bunch by nature, have turned even more pessimistic in recent weeks, as the peace process has faltered and Arafat has returned to center stage with a vengeance. And unlike Peres, forever brimming with bold ideas, the average Israeli no longer has a clue about what should be done, or how.
So, as Peres reluctantly wound down his celebrations, Israelis quickly got back to business as usual, anxiously praying for a terrorist-free Rosh Hashana over this weekend. The party is over, most Israelis sighed, and it wasn’t even their party in the first place.