There are not many leaders currently on the world stage who command our respect by sheer longevity and experience in navigating world events over decades. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and John Howard have died or retired. Fewer still have helped give birth to a nation, sustained it over decades, and earned a Noble Peace Prize. Indeed, there is only one: Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Peres came to Washington at a critical juncture in Israeli history and addressed a packed auditorium Monday morning at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)’s annual policy conference. To paraphrase Renée Zellweger, Peres “had them at ‘hello’.” The crowd swooned and cheered, plainly entranced with the encounter with one of the giants in Israel’s relatively short modern history. It was not merely the words that captivated the crowd, but his presence, which in some ways has become a metaphor for Israel. Like Israel, Peres has seen better and worse times, but remains resolute and inspirational.
It was a show of unity by the new Israeli government. In attendance were the incoming and outgoing ambassadors to the U.S. and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. And Peres went out of his way to note that newly-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been his political opponent, but “today he is my prime minister. He knows history. He wants to make history. In our tradition making history is making peace.”
Peres brings with him a history and credibility as an architect of Israel’s efforts to make peace with Jordan and Egypt. He also brings a bag of rhetorical skills — the staccato delivery, the parallel construction, and an impassioned, booming voice. He used it to good effect, bringing the audience to their feet multiple times. And mirroring the relationship between those assembled and Peres, the crowd did some figurative blocking and tackling — three times rising in applause to drown out anti-Israel protesters who shouted from the crowd. (The crowd reaction gave security ample time to escort out the interrupters.)
Peres’ mission was two-fold: to express profound gratitude for America’s support for Israel and to explain how Israel intends to navigate the relationship with America. As to the first, Peres was eloquent: “Brothers we are. And we need you, we want you, and we appreciate you from the depths of our heart. … For all you have done, for all you will do, the people of Israel salutes (sic) you.” America, he explained, is “more than an ally,” it is a “brave friend.” While he was speaking to and commending the AIPAC audience, he was clearly speaking to the larger American audience as well.
But what of the new Obama administration? Well, Peres made it plain: he intends there to be no daylight, if it can possibly be avoided, between the U.S. and Israel. If Obama is promising hope and change, then, Peres declared, “I am convinced he has the ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity.” And offering advice to the young U.S. president he pronounced, “You are young enough to offer hope to the world. You are strong enough to bring it to life.”