To judge from the standing ovation that President Shimon Peres received following his speech on Tuesday morning to the European Parliament in Strasbourg — the first such speech by an Israeli head of state — you would think that Israel was the most favoured nation in the EU. As it was, Mr Peres did not spare his listeners from criticism.
After describing how his own family had been wiped off the face of Europe during the Holocaust, he demanded that the EU finally declare that Hizbollah is a terror group. He cited the report by the Bulgarian government that held it responsible for last year’s Burgas bombing and stated: “call terror, terror”. Only then did he praise the EU for its sanctions on Hizbollah’s patron, Iran.
The speech was the culmination of an eight-day tour in France and Belgium where he also met the heads of Nato and the OECD. While the 89-year-old Peres serves in what is mainly a titular capacity, his meetings were on Israel’s most critical issues: Iran, Syria, the peace process and the country’s strategic ties with Europe.
He made time for meetings with the local Jewish leaders and in France held a rare meeting with a large delegation of local imams on the eve of the first anniversary of the Toulouse killings.
Israel currently does not have a foreign minister and, according to this week’s coalition deals, until former minister Avigdor Lieberman’s court case is over, Prime Minister Netanyahu will hold the portfolio. But Mr Peres proved again that he is effectively Israel’s top diplomat. Not only is he the one Israeli guaranteed a favourable audience around the world, but he is capable of representing a government despite his major reservations over its policies.
In June, he will convene the President’s Conference in Jerusalem, on his 90th birthday. One guest who is already said to have confirmed her appearance at the bash is Barbara Streisand, another Jewish icon but, at 71, a stripling beside Mr Peres.