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Peres the President: From kibbutznik to dandy

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November 24, 2016 23:12

There's a picture on my living-room windowsill of me shaking hands with Shimon Peres. I have tried and failed to figure out what office of state Peres was occupying at the time, because no matter what the political temperature in Israel, Peres always seems to have been there, the great survivor.

Prime Minister twice - once picking up the pieces after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 and providing a safe pair of hands for a nation in agony - a member of 12 Israeli cabinets, defence minister, foreign minister - suffice it to say it's difficult to think of an Israel without a Shimon.

In 2007 Peres became the ninth president of Israel, and in the seven years of his term, the wiliest of politicians finally achieved what he had sought all his life - national affection. In an interview he gave me in 2014, just after stepping down from office, Peres described becoming president as a twofold joy.

On one hand, he said: "I got my freedom when I became president. Politicians are not really liked. You know, when I was a minister or prime minister, I spent all my time mediating with people. I would ask them to do something and there was always the immediate answer, 'No'.

"And then I became president, and the very same people who said 'No', suddenly were saying 'Yes', and I could do things that I couldn't do as prime minister".

On the other hand, Peres said: "Being president is like living in a golden cage - it's nice if you like gold. But if you want to fly, it's a cage - and I prefer to fly."

There is no doubt that Peres made the most of his time as president, travelling the world as a revered elder statesman, often - to the barely disguised annoyance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - acting as a kind of supernumerary foreign minister, saying emollient things to global leaders which many diaspora Jews longed for members of the Israeli government to have said.

He enjoyed himself in office and the behind-the-scenes stories about him are manifold, from legendary nightclub evenings in New York to the birthday party to end all birthday parties when he turned 90, celebrating alongside former US President Bill Clinton and being sung to by - who else? - Barbra Streisand.

Out of office, he had a good time, too, rarely letting a photo-opportunity pass him by - such as one this year with supermodel Naomi Campbell on International Women's Day - and surrounding himself, in his office at the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, with an entourage of increasingly pretty girls not born when the former Shimon Persky moved from being a kibbutznik to working for David Ben-Gurion.

That was the springboard for Peres to build Israel's defence industry, adding French to his native Polish and heavily accented Hebrew, in order to buy arms from the French for the 1956 Suez War.

Peres moved from being an open-shirted kibbutznik to becoming the dandy of the Knesset, with a liking for good clothes and an aspirational lifestyle. He had always written poetry so when I went to see him - and knowing that his birthday was the day before mine - I thought I would take him a birthday gift, an edition of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The gift nearly came a cropper, however, as an over-enthusiastic security guard tried to X-ray it and destroy it before Peres got near it. Fortunately, as the security guard later admitted, the Peres Centre X-ray machine wasn't working, so he had to trust me.

Peres himself, in an office surrounded with landmark pictures of his life and career, was gravely pleased with the book of poetry.

By the time of this last interview Peres was avuncular and given to reciting aphorisms in many languages. But I'd interviewed him a number of times before and grown wary of a trademark way he would address women reporters when he didn't like the question. "What are you saying, my lady?" he would purr, and when he called you "my lady", you knew it was time to change the subject because he did not suffer fools.

I have no idea what he called male journalists who annoyed him.

In his later years, as his former colleagues died - from Ariel Sharon, whose life-support was turned off, to Binyamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, the Labour politician who died in August - Peres began to seem as though he would go on for ever. His enthusiasm for new technology, his enjoyment of young people and his endless hope for a new Middle East which never quite arrived, won him a special place in Israel's heart. And, it has to be said, in mine.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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