How Tony helped Shimon schmooze the world

By David Rowan, May 16, 2008

You are Shimon Peres, the world’s best-networked politician, and you are having a dozen or two of your closest head-of-state friends over to stay.

So how do you make each of these national heads (current or recent) feel that “he” is your special friend, smoothing over explosively clashing egos and defusing diplomatic minefields while paying just enough attention to the other 3,500 guests you are having round?

Simple: you call in your bestest-of-all statesman friend, Tony Blair, and anoint him your very own Schmoozemaster General.

Helping hand: Tony Blair threw his weight behind Peres at the Jerusalem Convention Centre

They trooped into the exhibition hall of Jerusalem’s International Convention Centre on Tuesday night: the leaders of Poland, Latvia and Mongolia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, Rwanda, Uganda and Burkina Faso — and not forgetting the 21,000-population Pacific island of Palau, a gentleman whose name alone, Tommy E Remengesau Junior, was causing evident kvetching among the simultaneous translators.

As the President of Israel led them all on to the stage, the first potential broiges was immediately apparent: how would the great Mikhail Gorbachev, who only 90 minutes earlier was hugging Henry Kissinger in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel, respond to the slight of being placed at the extreme far end of the table?

But Mr Blair, beaming the relieved grin of a newly historic figure whose successor has unexpectedly made his countrymen nostalgic for him, quickly turned game-show host to dissipate any possible bad feeling. “Today is the first time we’ve met each other,” he confessed as he bigged up the last Soviet president to the audience. “I wasn’t sure whether to shake your hand, Mikhail, or ask for an autograph.”

The national leaders — men (and men alone) who combine “the highest responsibilities and the most profound wisdom”, as their human-Facebook host, Mr Peres, announced after a scrum of photographers had to be shooed away — were here for a series of panel discussions, private meetings, and endless gushing tributes to Israel.

President Peres devised this week’s three-day “Facing Tomorrow” conference as his very own annual Davos — and although his office recently took offence at the JC’s photographic montage of him hugging endless numbers of showbusiness and political figures, the Israeli president was in his element as 500 journalists and TV crews from Al Jazeera to ZDF, came to see him welcome a promised 15 sitting presidents, including George Bush, and 27 other national leaders. The event cost a reported $21 million (£10.5m) to put on, $3m (£1.5m) of it donated by Sheldon Adelson, the world’s wealthiest Jew and hence a co-chairman of the event.

Tony Blair — “one of the most successful prime ministers of the past”, as Mr Peres introduced him — was leading a discussion about “the world of tomorrow”.

“Mazeltov to the State of Israel on its 60th birthday,” he declared, before reciprocating the mutual flattery. “Can I also say what an immense pleasure it is to be…sat alongside President Peres, who is someone I admire immensely and is a great statesman.”

Apart from a Freudian reference to his “stud-studded cast” — Mr Blair did not elucidate as to which panellists’ virility he meant — the ex-British leader proved delighted to be talking not about Iraqi policy or NHS waiting lists, but about the blander glades of “globalisation breaking down barriers”, and the need to “expand freedom and democracy [so that] our children will grow up in a more peaceful and just planet”.

He also offered the panellists the flattery they so clearly expected: Albania’s president, Bamir Topi, cared less about the audience applause than the Shmoozemaster’s reaction of: “That was a brilliant analysis!”

It did not matter much that the world leaders had little of substance to say, just that Mr Peres had got them here. So when Danilo Turk of Slovenia poured homage on “Jerusalem, the place of ancient civilisations and great modernity”, or Latvia’s Valdis Zatlers boasted that “Latvia has given the world many famous Jews” —Mark Rothko and Sergei Eisenstein, apparently — the audience displayed a polite applause until now never experienced in the Israeli capital.

Only occasionally did politics threaten to intervene: Mr Remengesau of Palau bemoaning the need for action on sustainable energy use and climate change, and Uganda’s Yoveri Museveni’s insistence that “the idea of genocide is a European import”. But Mr Blair was quick to move things on.

After all, there were other statesmen awaiting Mr Peres’s hugs and handshakes a short while later. In an upstairs hall for a gala conference-opening show was Vaclav Havel, last leader of Czechoslovakia, ex-president Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, as well as actor Jon Voight, and billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson.

The Google co-founder Sergey Brin was standing patiently outside the hall, perhaps to Google using the free wifi the various national leaders he had just been introduced to.

Finally, Ehud Olmert took to the stage to celebrate his country’s glorious achievements and to threaten its prospective enemies that it would never be cowed. As we went to press, Mr Olmert, too, still officially counted as a statesman.

Last updated: 9:13am, May 19 2008