Forward Thinking

Shimon Peres's Civics 'Class' That Wasn't

By Nathan Jeffay

Shimon Peres / Getty Images

Israel’s President Shimon Peres has just secured his second appearance in the Guinness Book of Records. But he missed an opportunity when setting his new record yesterday.

I was excited to watch Peres — who is already in the book as oldest head of state — teach the largest ever civics class, using videoconferencing to connect with 9,000 students from across Israel’s ethnic divides. And he started well, talking about the importance of knowledge. He said that money “comes and goes” while knowledge endures, and if we all read three times a day like we eat three times a day, we would be in a good position. Even at his age, he said, he’s still learning.

In a country where teachers all too often talk at students, this looked promising. The President was becoming a teacher for the day.

Not many people of his age would have the charm, vision and appeal to address such a huge number of youngsters, and it was moving to see him do so. But he could have done much more with the opportunity.

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When Bibi and Peres Crooned Arik Einstein

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Amid the grief over the passing of iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein, the internet has given us a gem: Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — together, in the nineties — singing one of Einstein’s best-known songs, “Ani v’Ata” (You and I).

The clip starts with Israeli celebrities Ofra Haza and Dan Shilon singing the song on stage, but at about 1:30 they descend to Bibi and Peres, who stand and somewhat awkwardly sing along. Bibi — who wrote not one but two Facebook posts mourning Einstein yesterday — adds his confident baritone to the melody.

Peres, though, doesn’t appear to know the words to one of Israel’s most famous songs. After joining in for the opening line, his mouth hardly moves and we can barely hear his voice. I guess, unlike me, Peres was not forced to sing “Ani v’Ata” over and over at Jewish summer camp as a child.

The video’s description says it was shot in 1995 and calls Bibi the prime minister and Peres former prime minister.

But in 1995, Bibi led the Knesset opposition while Peres served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One year later, Bibi would edge Peres out in an upset election victory. Now, of course, Bibi is prime minister and Peres is Israel’s president.

See the video below:

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Babs, Bill, Tony — and Shimon Peres

By Jane Eisner

getty images

Tony Blair set the stage for the schmaltzy, over-the-top, joyful and endearing tribute Tuesday night to Israeli President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday. “We in Britain have our Queen,” the former British prime minister said, “and you have your Shimon.”

Indeed, it felt like a coronation of sorts, an odd mixture of loving familiarity and the sort of fancy production that would have made the founding generation of the state of Israel cringe. The thousands of invited guests — mostly Israelis, lots of Americans, and a sprinkling of others — were dressed to impress, reflecting the newly acquired wealth in the start-up nation. One of the only men I saw without a suit was an American rabbi. The days of kibbutz-style gatherings are clearly over.

The program was nationally televised, featuring popular singers like Eyal Golan and Shlomo Artzi, lots and lots of adorable children, videos from near and far, recorded birthday messages from the leaders of France, Germany, Spain, Russia, the United Nations, and more. Barack Obama sent his regards. So did Bono.

And it was all about Peres. The length of his extraordinary career has allowed him to reinvent himself again and again — much to his critics’ dismay — and on this occasion it was Peres the peacemaker who was celebrated. A rousing chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” sung by hundreds of young Israelis made that point, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an otherwise touching tribute, made sure to emphasize the need for a strong defense.

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The One About Clinton, JNF, Peres and the $500K Bill

By Yermi Brenner

Like many urban legends, the myth — and now mess — of the Jewish National Fund’s supposed agreement to pay former President Bill Clinton $500,000 in charitable funds to speak for 45 minutes to an exclusive group of Israeli dinner guests began with an incorrect press report — which then got repeated until it was “fact.”

On May 31, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli Minister of Education, published an opinion piece on-line in Haaretz in which he informed his readers that Clinton would be the keynote speaker at a gala dinner to be held in honor of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Peres Academic Center on June 17. The dinner, a celebration of Peres’s 90th birthday, was to be an exclusive event for a select list of invitees, Sarid wrote. And each guest would be required to donate $828 to the Peres Academic Center’s scholarship program.

Infuriated by the high cost, Sarid, who was himself an invitee, made some phone calls, and learned that Clinton’s 45-minute speech would cost a half a million dollars, to be paid to Clinton’s charitable foundation. He also heard from his sources that the Jewish National Fund, a co-sponsor of the exclusive gala event, would be paying Clinton’s fee.

Now Sarid was even more angry. Why was the JNF, an organization created to collect money from Jewish donors to build and improve the state of Israel, using its funds to enrich Clinton’s philanthropy, with its quite separate charitable agenda? Effie Shtenzler, chairman of JNF-Israel, had no clear answers for Sarid when the latter called asking about this. So Sarid published his op-ed, and the story exploded.

Over the next few days, other media outlets, including the Times of Israel and Yedioth Ahranot, crucified the JNF for supposedly betraying its mission and misleading donors.

It was only later that follow-up reporting by the Forward and others clarified what really occurred.

When the Forward contacted JNF’s New York office, which collects donations from American Jews and transfers them to JNF-Israel, the New York office explained, a bit beseechingly, that it was a separately incorporated U.S. affiliate and was not responsible for any decisions made by JNF-Israel.

But when we contacted JNF-Israel officials they, too, passed the buck, so to speak. The officials admitted that JNF-Israel had, indeed, signed on as a co-sponsor of the gala event at the Peres Academic Center. But they insisted, “The Peres Academic Center… invited [Clinton], came to financial terms with him and paid him, a long time before [JNF-Israel] were part of it.”

And that turned out to be the case. Officials with the Peres Academic Center, a small, relatively little known social science school in Rehovot, confirmed to the Forward that, yes, they were the ones who had engaged Clinton and were putting up the cash.

But the saga was far from over. When Peres learned through the press reports that what was supposed to be an evening to honor him was doubling as a fundraiser, he announced he would not attend since Israeli regulations prohibit him from participating in money raising events. The Peres Academic Center (which is named after Peres but is not related to him in any way) realized its blunder. You could not very well have an evening in honor of President Peres without President Peres. So the school retreated from the idea of the event doubling as fundraiser, and announced all invitees would now enter for free.

In other words, the school is now eating its costs for bringing in Clinton, leaving its donors, perhaps, as the ones who should be asking tough questions.

But thanks to the original erroneous press reports, that was not enough to get JNF off the hook. As the criticism went global and reached potential donors worldwide, JNF announced this afternoon that it was backing out of any participation in the gala event. It would therefore take back from the Peres Academic Center any funds that it had already provided for the event.

Bottom line: The Peres Academic Center, with JNF as a co-sponsor, tried to dance at two weddings simultaneously — honor President Peres and raise funds for its own purposes. Media found out and lambasted JNF, while basically ignoring the Peres Academic Center. JNF backed out and left the school with a reported bill of half a million dollars. And Yossi Sarid will be able to hear President Clinton’s speech for free.

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Bibi's Final Snub

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party announced Friday afternoon Israel-time that the coalition negotiations are complete, and the government will be presented to President Shimon Peres on Saturday night. Expect a swearing in on Monday (just don’t ask what Sara Netanyahu will be wearing for this swearing in).

There was a last-minute hitch last-night which saw Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett going of in a huff over Netanyahu’s refusal to make him and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid vice prime ministers. But today, Bennett backed down, and the path is clear for the new government.

The debacle over the vice prime ministers title is indicative of just how much the final phase of the negotiations turned out to be about one thing — honor — and not about policies or ideals. The vice prime ministers is basically honorific, and means very little in day-to-day political life. But it’s become a staple of the Israeli scene.

Netanyahu doesn’t seeme to have had any desire to dispense with the vice PM roles before the election. After all, why would it matter to the invincible Bibi at a time when nobody could even conceive of anyone else as PM? But after his battering at the ballot box, and loss of face in coalition negotiations faced with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s stubborn refusal to do as he said and sit with Haredim, he was on the look out for ways to claw back some respect and impression of control. And so, after a chaotic coalition negotiation, he got in one final snub for Bennett, and in true Bibi style ensured that he got the last word.

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Shimon Peres Talks with NYT About Iran and Bibi

By Susan Armitage

Getty Images

“There are two things that cannot be made without closing your eyes — love and peace. If you try to make them with open eyes, you won’t get anywhere,” Shimon Peres tells Ronen Bergman in an illuminating interview in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

While the 89-year-old President of Israel tells the journalist he “asks foolish questions,” Bergman gets frank answers from Peres on Obama, Iran and the path to peace in the Middle East. Throughout the piece, a theme of challenging relationships — between Peres and Netanyahu, Israel and the U.S. and Israel and Iran — emerges:

It’s no secret Peres and Netanyahu don’t see eye to eye on diplomacy. In the interview, Peres speaks out on the harsh consequences he believes will come from the Prime Minister’s approach:

If there is no diplomatic decision, the Palestinians will go back to terror…the silence that Israel has been enjoying over the last few years will not continue, because even if the local inhabitants do not want to resume the violence, they will be under the pressure of the Arab world…Most of the world will support the Palestinians, justify their actions, level the sharpest criticism at us, falsely label us a racist state. Our economy will suffer gravely if a boycott is declared against us. The world’s Jews want an Israel they can be proud of and not an Israel that has no borders and that is considered an occupying state.

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It's Shimon vs. Bibi, Again

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images
Shimon Peres

Israeli President Shimon Peres has locked horns again with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two men have a troubled relationship, and in the summer had a very tense month after Peres went against Netanyahu’s position on Iran.

Speaking to a large gathering of Israeli diplomats, Peres heaped praise on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — a man that Netanyahu and recently-resigned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have put great energy in to discrediting and portraying as an antagonizer in recent weeks.

“I’ve known him for 30 years,” said Peres. “No one will change my opinion about Abu Mazen, even if they say I cannot express it because I’m the president.”

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Peres Receives Islamist Egypt's New Envoy

By J.J. Goldberg

Ynet reports that Atef Salem, the newly appointed ambassador of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government, has formally presented his credentials to Israel’s President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. In the words of V.P. Joe Biden, this is a big f*!@&! deal.

Worth recalling the little-noticed passage in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, in which he reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative promising full recognition and end of conflict with Israel in return for a mutually agreed peace pact with the Palestinians.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: U.N. General Assembly, Shimon Peres, Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian Ambassador, Jerusalem, Atef Salem, Arab Peace Initiative

Egypt President To Peres: I'll Work for Peace

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi

Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-linked president, Mohamed Morsy, has written to Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Israeli news site Mako-News 2 reports. In the letter Morsy thanks Peres for his Ramadan greetings and pledges “our best efforts to get the Middle east [sic] Peace Process back to the right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.” It appears to be the first direct outreach

The letter comes 12 days after Morsy met in Cairo with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and follows weeks of speculation and contradictory Egyptian messages regarding the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a long history of virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Hamas, its Palestinian wing, has repeatedly restated its opposition to any recognition of Israel. At the same time, Egypt’s military, the element in Egyptian society with the closest ties to Israel, has noticeably declined to give up the reins of power following the Brotherhood’s political rise, and Morsy formally resigned his membership in the Brotherhood after winning the presidency.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Shimon Peres, Ramadan, Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsy, Middle East Peace Process

Israelis Debate on the Web: Did Norway Get What It Deserved?

By J.J. Goldberg

The Norway massacre has touched off a nasty war of words on the Israeli Internet over the meaning of the event and its implications for Israel. And I do mean nasty: Judging by the comments sections on the main Hebrew websites, the main questions under debate seem to be whether Norwegians deserve any sympathy from Israelis given the country’s pro-Palestinian policies, whether the killer deserves any sympathy given his self-declared intention of fighting Islamic extremism and, perhaps ironically, whether calling attention to this debate is in itself an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic act.

The debate seems to be taking place almost entirely on Hebrew websites. There’s a bit of bile popping up on the English-language Jerusalem Post site as well (for example, there are a handful of choice comments of a now-they’ll-know-what-it-feels-like variety following this Post news article reporting on Israel’s official offer of sympathy and aid). In Hebrew, though, no holds are barred. I’ve translated some of the back-and-forth from the Ynet and Maariv websites below, to give you taste.

The debate exploded aboveground on Saturday in an opinion essay at Ynet (in Hebrew only) by Ziv Lenchner, a left-leaning Tel Aviv artist and one of Ynet’s large, bipartisan stable of columnists. It’s called “Dancing the Hora on Norwegian Blood.” He argues that the comment sections on news websites are a fair barometer of public sentiment (a questionable premise) and that the overwhelming response is schadenfreude, pleasure at Norway’s pain. As I’ll show below, that judgment seems pretty accurate.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ziv Lenchner, Shimon Peres, Terror Attack, Ynet, Yossi Beilin, Oslo, Norway, Maariv

The Conversion Debate Gets Fiery in Jerusalem

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Eli Yishai: Debate Crasher

The Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres’s vanity international blabfest, continues today with a series of panel discussions on the woes of the global economy and the future of the Jewish people. I don’t think we’ve solved the world’s economic problems, but there have been a few bombshells dropped into the field of Jewish identity.

The most interesting was a panel on conversion, which included Rabbi Peter Knobel (Reform), Rabbi Gilah Dror (Conservative), Professor Dov Maimon (modern Orthodox think-tanker) , Israeli justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

It was supposed to include a Haredi rabbi, Yehezkel Weinfeld, but he phoned moderator Shmuel Rosner an hour before and said he couldn’t attend. No suggestion that he was sick or called to an emergency, Rosner tells me. He just couldn’t come. At the end, during Q and A, a Haredi gent rose from the audience, one Shmuel Jakobovits (son of the late, revered British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits) and said that Rabbi Weinfeld had asked him to attend in his place. Not to sit on the dais with the Reformim and lady rabbis, mind you - just to be there.

So what happened? Maimon proposed the introduction of a new form of conversion that he called “civilizational conversion,” in which one would seek membership in the religious community of the Jewish people, but without necessarily committing oneself to observe the Orthodox commandments, as Orthodox conversion now requires. This sort of reframed the discussion. He had few details — it’s apparently still an idea in infancy — but we’re going to hear more about it in months to come, you betcha.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Shmuel Rosner, Shimon Peres, Shas, Natan Sharansky, Conversion, Yaakiv Ne'eman

Peres's Big Ideas, Tzipi Livni's Raw Politics, Sarah Silverman's Low Humor

By J.J. Goldberg

Shimon Peres likes to bill his Israeli Presidential Conference, the star-studded international talkfest that he’s convening in Jerusalem this week for the third time (the previous ones were in 2008 and 2009) as a Davos-style gathering of great minds to consider the great issues of the day. And it is that, in part. But like most everything else Peres touches, it combines big ideas and soaring rhetoric with healthy dollops of raw politics and moments of unintended, embarrassingly low humor

The big ideas were big indeed. At one session, Peres shared the stage with the presidents of Macedonia, Mongolia and the Dominican Republic to discuss climate change, poverty and the demands of leadership. At another, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and British media mogul Sir Martin Sorrell discussed the ways in which technology is changing decision making.

At a third, Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer moderated an intense discussion over the future of the global economy—meaning, mostly, the rise of China and the threat of a Greek debt contagion—with former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, former president Alejandro Toledo of Peru and former Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkl (Frenkl was sitting in for French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who dropped out at the last minute; she was scheduled to be interviewed this week to take over the International Monetary Fund).

Thousands of delegates attended each of those sessions. When they were done, I couldn’t find anybody out in the lobby standing and discussing what had transpired inside. Most people I talked to couldn’t remember exactly what was said.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tzipi Livni, Yigal Ravid, Sarah Silverman, Stanley Fischer, Shimon Peres, Martin Sorrell, Larry Summers, James Wolfensohn, Jimmy Wales, Jacob Frenkl, Israeli Presidential Conference, Arye Deri, Alejandro Toledo




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