I was thinking about writing ninety comments about Shimon Peres' 90th birthday celebration, but I got tired at nine. I should also say at the outset of this post that I am moderating a panel at the conference on Thursday. This means I'm walking a tightrope here, trying to be both well mannered (because I'm taking part in the conference) but still honest (because I owe this to my readers) at the same time. I’m sure some of you will let me know if I succeeded or not.
As I wrote the other day, I refuse to be petty about this birthday extravaganza. But after opening night and the first morning it's getting harder to withstand the pressure to join the Israeli choir of shock and condemnation. The report which said that "Israel's social networks were teeming with criticism over the nature and scope of what has been called Peres' 'relentless cult of personality'" was an understatement. I’ve been bombarded with a lot of criticism, but I will try to explain why I refuse to cave in.
What was Peres thinking? Did he not realize that he'll be criticized for this grand celebration? Two answers:
1. One of Peres' great strengths lies in his ability to turn a deaf ear to the public. This is, of course, something that a leader must do from time to time.
2. Another virtue of Peres is his ability to always remain optimistic – so maybe he was also optimistic enough to believe that he will get a pass from the public this time.
On the other hand, why are they all complaining? Did they not know that Peres likes the flattery and the glitz and the celebrity status and the global flavor and the larger-than-life phrases and the honors? Did they not know that about him? Is this oh-so-human flaw of character not part of why we like him? Whatever the answer, a person's 90th birthday is probably a little too late to call on him to change. This is not the time to try to educate him. Let Peres be Peres- he earned it.
Being serious for a minute, this celebration makes one think about the huge gap between the way Israelis think about themselves and the way they really are. Peres, like many of us, can easily go back to reminiscing about the simple life in the Kibbutz, about the dignity of living economically, about the unfussiness of Israeli culture. Yet when we look at our leaders – and Peres is hardly the worst in this regard – we are constantly reminded that it's been a while since the days when Israel used to settle for less, since the days when Israel was modest and unassuming. From time to time some of them still try to project such an image, from time to time we fall for it, but maybe it's time to let go of that non-existent Israel. The Israel in Khaki is gone. Except for pockets here and there we are – sadly but understandably – a culture in which showing off is no longer something to be ashamed of.
Peres, Clinton, Blair, all spent a significant portion of their time convincing Israelis that the "two state solution" is the only available option for them. While they all made reasonable cases for the peace process – and are all right to point out that up until now a better, viable, solution has never been presented - this talk sounded less like a talk about a ninetieth birthday and more like a talk about the Nineties.
Barbara Streisand singing Avinu Malkeinu to Peres in this occasion was somewhat odd, and yet it brought tears to my eyes – her version of it never fails to do so. The combination of the ultra-Israeli Shlomo Artzi and the ultra-Diasporish Streisand in one long evening (too long, but this is a lesson never learned) was refreshing and healthy for both these vibrant Jewish cultures.
When great conferences take place, there's always a tendency in the media to look for "headlines" and in case there are no "headlines" to make things into "headlines" – usually the banal statements of politicians. So former head of Mossad Meir Dagan warns again that Israel "can't sit and wait"; and Minister Lapid promises – again – to send Haredis to work; and Clinton gets a standing ovation for being Clinton. At the time of writing, the only important thing about this conference seems to be its existence. If you want news, look someplace else (here, here, here).
As I was schmoosing my way along the halls, at least three attendants asked me: what happens next year? Next year Peres will be ninety one, and around June he will be nearing the end of his term. So this question is really threefold: is there a conference next year (Peres' last)? Will there be a Presidential Conference after Peres (will the next President be a large enough figure to assemble such a gathering)? And of course, what's next for the never ending career of this tireless man? I'm sorry, but I can't answer even one of these questions.
When our last lion celebrates ninety, how old does it make us seem?