Protestors fail to disrupt Peres talk

President Shimon Peres showed grace under fire on Tuesday night when he was systematically heckled and barracked by Oxford students at the city's Sheldonian Theatre.

The trip to Oxford on Tuesday evening was always going to be the most unpredictable part of the presidential visit. On the one hand there was Mr Peres' insistence on plunging head-first into the academic boycott issue, and on the other, the preparations of various pro-Palestinian groups to protest against the visit of the man they described as a "war criminal" caused a lot of worry to the security detail.

In the event, the detail of mounted police with riot gear outside the Sheldonian Theatre, where Mr Peres was to give his lecture on "The Globalisation of Peace" was unnecessary. About 150 demonstrators gathered outside but they seemed content to chant "Free, free Palestine" and hand out leaflets detailing Mr Peres' "crimes against humanity" and blaming the Americans for 9/11. But the main concern was what was going to happen inside the splendid hall. The university had ruled that any student with a valid university card would be allowed in on a first come, first served basis- and trouble was expected. A team of bodyguards and a group of proctors were ranged around the theatre in readiness.

On arrival, Mr Peres was received with thunderous applause and no sign of any dissent. But three minutes into his lecture, when he was explaining how Barack Obama's election was the realisation of the Zionist dream of eradicating antisemitism and racism, a young man stood up and shouted: "I am here as the representative of 800,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed by Israel."

A few people shushed him; Mr Peres continued speaking as if nothing had happened and the protestor sat down. But for the next hour, every five minutes or so, another student got up to represent a different sector of the downtrodden Palestinian people. Only once, when one actually started walking towards the president, shouting: "How dare you, leader of an apartheid state," was he bundled out of the hall by the proctors.

Throughout these disturbances, Mr Peres carried on unflappably, though towards the end he seemed to be chafing a bit. To one heckler who claimed to be representing "thousands of farmers who had their land taken away by Israeli settlers" he said: "It's not bad to open the eyes and ears and keep the mouth for a later occasion."

The Oxford visit was part of President Peres' three-day trip to the UK. Israeli briefing papers describe Britain as the main European hot-bed for anti-Israel activity and media. With that in mind, the trip was envisaged as a military-like campaign to put Israel's case across over hostile terrain; the main weapon: an 85 year old man. While the itinerary included the requisite meetings with politicians and royalty, the main emphasis was put on public appearances and press interviews.

His first public appearance was at the Mansion House in the City for the keynote address of the visit. The President was received by Ian Luder, the newly-elected Lord Mayor of the City of London, the first Reform Jew to occupy the post.

Then the president was awarded an honorary doctorate from the principal of King's College, Professor Richard Trainor. Speaking off the cuff, Mr Peres pitched his core messages: Iran must be stopped by bringing down the price of oil, the agreement with the Palestinians is basically ready but they have to solve their own problems first, Syria knows what it can get by making real peace with Israel.

After that came the first contribution from British officialdom to the visit, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, who extolled Britain's financial ties with Israel. Lord Mandelson's speech was closely parsed by the Israelis for any diplomatic signals. In line with Britain's newly tough position on the settlements, Lord Mandelson said: "Israel will have to take down settlements and share Jerusalem and that will be very painful but the prize will be much greater." A senior Israeli diplomat offered instant analysis: "He said 'settlements,' not 'the settlements,' that is a sign that the British understand that we will not be pulling back entirely."

Mr Peres also met Opposition leader David Cameron and Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday. Today he is breakfasting with opinion makers and then laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Whitehall before addressing both Houses of Parliament and meeting leaders of the Jewish community.

On Thursday he is due to have an audience with the Queen, followed by a meeting at Clarence House with Prince Charles. Then he will go toWhitehall for a meeting with Foreign Secretary David Miliband and end his visit at Downing Street, meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who will host a dinner in his honour.

    Last updated: 4:27pm, November 19 2008