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Shimon Peres Addresses AIPAC Conference

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.”

But he came not to flatter Obama, but to adopt the American president’s mantra. Quoting from Obama’s inaugural address, Peres declared that Israel was in the business of “the outstretched arm.” He reiterated in bold tones that Israel offers peace “with all Arab nations and all Arab people.” And to those with a “clenched fist,” he declared: “Enough. Enough war. Enough destruction. Enough hatred.” He is in fact grasping Obama’s hand, daring the Palestinians and Arab states to come to the negotiating table.

But Peres is not naïve. And he spoke at length about the “dark cloud” of extremists hovering over the Middle East and the looming “nuclear threat.” He declared, “We shall not give up. We shall not surrender. We shall not lose our nerve.” Iran, he explained, has a great people and history. Iran used to “enrich the world, now they enrich uranium.” Iran is “not threatened by anybody” yet acquires missiles and promotes “divisions” by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, he explained. The peace that Israel seeks, he argued, must be a “real peace” for all the children of the Middle East. As for the Palestinians, he said, “The Palestinian people have the right to govern themselves. We don’t want to be their masters.”

He then announced, “Today there is no difference between the American position and the Israeli position.” Both, he said, should pursue peace “as swiftly as possible.” He asked, “Why wait?”  And with a nod to the Saudis for their  2002 peace proposal, he acknowledged that nation’s “profound change.” Then, with calls to visit Israel, a salute to the students in attendance, and a reminder that “time is always short, but the time is now,” he was done.

But what was he up to? After all, whom is Israel supposed to negotiate with? And what is to be done about that dark cloud over Israel? Well, that’s the rub.

As for the Palestinians, Peres is batting the ball into their court. What can they do and what can they negotiate? Peres, it seems, has decided to follow at least the rhetorical lead of Obama and declare the peace process open for business. Israel is not about to give away the store for nothing, of course. And it may be that the Palestinians are utterly incapable of forming a viable negotiating team. But that is for them to figure out. And perhaps baby steps in advance of grand bargains must come first.

In the meantime, the signal was clear. Israel won’t see its survival threatened. A nuclear-armed Iran is not conceivable to a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. So the U.S. can talk and pursue sanctions against Tehran, but in the end Israel, as Peres said, will not “surrender” — or accept an Iran with nuclear weapons.

The hitch in all this may come if the Obama administration decides to pressure Israel to offer up concessions in the absence of a meaningful guarantee of peace. But that is all in the future. For today, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is eternal. And Peres is not about to let the ties that bind the two friends fray.