Fighting Words

President of Which Israel?

The president and prime minister have radically different visions for their country.

As the old music-hall lament has it:

Don’t tell my mother I’m a horse in a pantomime
Don’t tell her my life is a sham
But if you have in due course
To tell her I’m half a horse
Please don’t tell her which half I am!

Last week was a more-than-usually interesting time for a sit-down with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Now almost 86, he represents the old Labor Party tradition that stood for a secular Zionism and a “peace through strength” compromise with the Palestinian Arabs. If we’d had time, I would have wanted to ask him about the days in 1956, of which he is now the sole living witness, when the governments of Britain, France, and Israel met secretly in a French villa to plan the invasion and occupation of Egypt. I should also have liked to ask him about his other achievement at the Israeli Defense Ministry, when Israel became the possessor of a nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert. (Some of these things are touched upon in his memoirs.)

But as usual, conversation is dominated by the here and now, and in the here and now the right is back in Israeli politics, with Benjamin Netanyahu forming a tenuous coalition government and selecting as his foreign minister a man—Avigdor Lieberman—who explicitly rejects the “land for peace” formula that led up to the Oslo Accords of 1993 and that now constitutes the bedrock of U.S. and European diplomacy.

Lieberman and people like him say that Iran and the Palestinian issue should be effectively decoupled, that Iran should be recognized as the main problem, and that concessions will only encourage Hamas’ militancy and Iran’s sponsorship of same. Peres’ views, it emerges over our conversation, are almost diametrically opposite. If an agreement can be reached on statehood for the Palestinians, he says, then the Arab world will be enabled to unite against what much of it already sees as the main problem: a nuclear-armed theocracy in Tehran. Iran, he adds, is not simply making noises about the destruction of a member state of the United Nations. It is seeking “hegemony” in the region, especially over neighboring Sunni Arab countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (R) meets with President Shimon Peres

I asked Peres if he was quoted correctly as having told Israeli Army Radio in 2006 that Iran should bear in mind that it, too, could be “wiped from the map.” With complete suavity, he assured me that this was meant only as a warning to the Iranian regime that it was not all-powerful. In a few strokes, he sketched the position as he saw it: Of the Iranian population of about 66 million, perhaps only half is ethnically Persian. (This much I know to be true: Azeris and Kurds and other minorities—including many Arabs in the provinces bordering Iraq—are undercounted and often poorly treated.) How will about 33 million Persians, then, be able to rule over perhaps 300 million Arabs in the rest of the Middle East? Peres’ response: “Talleyrand said that you can conquer with bayonets but that you cannot use bayonets to sit upon.”

I stupidly didn’t think of saying this at the time, but this Peres analysis reverses one of Israel’s old doctrines, which is the so-called “doctrine of the periphery.” On the edge of the Arab world (which at its core surrounded Israel), there were Muslim countries like Iran and Turkey and largely Christian countries like Ethiopia, which could be used as a counterweight. Israel had very close relations with Iran when it was under the shah, and the Israeli military alliance with Turkey continues to hold—despite some recent spats with the Erdogan regime, including a very public one involving Peres himself at Davos a few months ago. (As a detail, this also helps explain Peres’ strongly held view that the sufferings of the Armenians should not be equated with the Jewish Holocaust.)

But now, the doctrine of the periphery is being turned inside out—in order to appeal to Arabs against a common threat from a messianic Shiite dictatorship armed with apocalyptic weapons. This is a development well worth following. I can think of some Arab diplomats who will say in confidence that they truly do dread the Iranian challenge. But they also tend to express vast exasperation at the glacial progress toward a Palestinian state. I asked Peres about Lieberman’s apparent rejection of Oslo as binding on successor Israel governments, and he replied that the new government had not yet had enough time to evolve a united policy. So I pressed him by asking if he thought a Palestinian state was nearer or further away than at Oslo, and he smiled and said that his unofficial view was that it was “inevitable.” There were no alternatives, or rather, the alternatives were unthinkable. At this stage I decided to drop my frivolous final question, which was to have been: Is it true that Lauren Bacall is his cousin? I know that they were both originally named Pirsky … (Wikipedia  says they are.)

In the corridors outside Peres’ hotel suite I learned that Israeli historian Michael Oren was soon to be announced as Israel’s next ambassador to Washington. His book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, is a fascinating account of American engagement with the region since 1776, and in Georgetown in March he made quite a strong speech in favor of evacuating the West Bank. To be inside the foreign ministry horse that contains both Lieberman and Oren could be quite vertiginous. To be observing the rearings and canterings of the horse that contains Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres is to be compelled to ask which half is which.