Saturday, November 17, 2007

Israel Diary V

The hawk who turned dove
Kanchan Gupta
The writer with Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Israel's President Shimon Peres does not have to exert himself to be in the news; the news chases him. This past week he featured in possibly every newspaper in West Asia for "making history as the first Israeli President to address the Turkish Parliament". To thunderous applause, Peres expressed gratitude to Turkey for providing refuge to Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.
What made the event important -- apart from an Israeli addressing Prime Minister Abdullah Gul's Islamist party-dominated Parliament -- was the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yesterday's foes could not have come closer today; nor would an Israeli head of state have dreamt of asserting with any conviction that "peace is possible with the Palestinians and other neighbouring Arab countries ... in the entire region, from Syria to Yemen".
Yet there was a time when Peres would be counted among Israeli hardliners like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan who wouldn't countenance the very thought of accommodation with Palestinians, leave alone the Arab countries, and actively propagated the concept of settlements in Gaza and West Bank to push Israel's frontiers to its biblical past.
That was many decades ago; the hawk has now turned into a dove. He doesn't tire talking of peace in our time.
Few would recall today, including in Israel, that Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski in eastern Poland in 1923. He arrived in the British mandate of Palestine in 1934 and seven years later entered politics as an elected official of the Labour Zionist Youth Movement. Later, he joined the Hagannah, procuring arms to defend Israel from its Arab neighbours. It's been a long time in politics and an eventful public life.
Peres was elected to Knesset in 1959, and since then has been a member of Israel's Parliament till his election as President in June this year -- easily a record of sorts for any politician in any country. Travelling across the political spectrum, from Mapai (which he left along with Dayan and Ben-Gurion after the 'Lavon Affair') to Kadima (which he joined convinced that Ariel Sharon alone could deliver peace), he now plays the role of senior statesman and peace-maker, having served as Prime Minister thrice and as Minister in 12 Cabinets.
Along the road to the highest (though largely ceremonial) office in Israel, he has picked up the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for his role in the negotiations leading to the Oslo Agreements. Of the troika who reached the cusp of peace but didn't quite succeed in securing it, Rabin and Arafat are dead; the former was assassinated by an Israeli extremist for conceding too much.
Standing outside the President's residence in Jerusalem, waiting for security clearance as a young woman scrupulously checked my palms and fingernails for traces of explosives with a high-tech gadget, I wondered what would Peres be like in real life. A ponderous old man? A pompous politician? A cynical manipulator? As we were shown into his rather modest book-lined office (lesser 'leaders' in India have far more opulent offices), Peres, easily more than a couple of inches taller than me, lumbered over from his desk, exuding grandfatherly warmth and an easy charm. Over the next 45 minutes he held forth, effortlessly, on the coming Annapolis peace talks, the prospects of a lasting agreement on Palestine and Israel's alarm over Iran's nuclear programme.
Despite Cassandras both at home and abroad predicting that Annapolis will be another stillborn affair, Peres is confident that Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers will keep their date. "Diplomacy is the art of the possible. Annapolis will not be an end by itself, it will lead to a sort of beginning," he says. Like many other optimists in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington, he believes a declaration of intent will be issued and the "real negotiations will start".
Looking back at the wasted years spent hunting for an elusive deal acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, Peres recalls how King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1987 and offered his help to form a Palestinian confederation. "The Israelis torpedoed it ... I believe we shouldn't have taken on the job of managing Gaza and West Bank," he adds. Twenty years ago Peres wouldn't have said this.
But Israel wasn't to blame entirely. Referring to the talks preceding Oslo, he recalls, "Yasser Arafat agreed to the 1967 border." This is not what is popularly known of the Oslo talks -- Arafat would never agree to specifics, not at Oslo, nor later, including at Tabah. Then came the rider, "Without him we couldn't have started (talking), with him we couldn't finish." Then came Rabin's assassination and the suicide bombings which made "things difficult". That's putting it rather mildly.
He recalls how he was informed, while on his way to office in 1996, of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which 50 Israelis were killed. "The square was full of blood ... Next day there was a blast in Tel Aviv." Peres, who by then had begun to push for a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, was branded a "traitor" at home. "Extremism took over the centre," he says impassively.
That 'extremism' has now yielded space to pragmatism -- both in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Mahmoud Abbas realises that this could be the moment in history which Palestinians have been waiting for; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feels Israel couldn't have a better opportunity to strike a deal and cut its losses. "We are closer to peace than ever before. Everything is negotiable ... prejudices, differences and obstacles," explains Peres.
But there can't be any compromise on Israel's position against conceding the Palestinians' demand for the refugees' 'right to return'. "They can return to the Palestinian state," he says. The steel in his voice can't be missed -- shades of the hawk? He pauses for a moment, and then adds with a flourish, "You don't look for the most popular but the most promising (deal)."
In 1994, Peres had famously declared, "History is one long misunderstanding." Does he still subscribe to that view? "These days I recommend young people not to read history," he says with a chuckle, rubbing his hands. Tea is served by two elderly ladies who fuss over Mr President. He has a sip, thinks for a while, and then picks up the thread of the conversation, really a long monologue, but not boring at all. "There was a time when people made a living from land, so they annexed territory ... Today, existence does not come from land but science. So, there's no reason for war. Intellectual energy will fuel the future," Peres says.
If only the real world had been so easily persuaded, it would have been a happier, peaceful place. As the meeting comes to an end, Peres remembers to mention that he continues to be "fascinated by India" and how he connects Jawaharlal Nehru with 'wisdom', MK Gandhi with 'moral strength' and Rabindranath Tagore with 'love'. It's a vastly different India today, one which would find such views quaint. I wish Peres could see it for himself.

November 18, 2007.

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