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A Great and Stirring Hour
Israel’s president Shimon Peres shines at Davos

Shimon Peres at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009 (WEF)

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Davos, Switzerland — The “global elites” have gathered once more in this Alpine village, for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. More than 40 heads of state or government are here, which is almost a quarter of the world’s total. The WEF certainly knows how to pull them in.

The main topic of conversation is, of course, the international financial crisis. Indeed, the theme of the meeting — every year, there is a theme — is “Shaping the Post-Crisis World.” But there are other topics, including, inevitably, the Middle East. The Middle East, we will always have with us — or at least it seems so now.

One session is devoted to Gaza, where the Israelis have recently completed a major operation, designed to set back Hamas. We will hear from four speakers: Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey; Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League; and Shimon Peres, president of Israel. Serving as moderator is Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

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Ban goes first, chastising Israel, if slightly indirectly: Gaza is miserable, a hell on earth, he says, which is certainly true. And he implies that Israel bears full responsibility. He does not say that Hamas triggered the recent fighting. And he does not say how bad Gaza was for Palestinians — especially non-Hamas ones — before Israel started its operation in late December. What Ban does is decry Israel’s hitting of a U.N. building, which he calls “shocking.”

Next comes Prime Minister Erdogan, who is in a decidedly anti-Israeli mood. Turkey has played a useful role as mediator between Israel and Syria; but it may be some time before Erdogan is again disposed to mediate anything. He denounces Israel’s killing of civilians. Like Ban, he acknowledges no Hamas responsibility at all. To hear him tell it, Israel went back into Gaza (after withdrawing in 2005) for the simple and single-minded purpose of killing.

Beyond Gaza, he paints Israel as an oppressor, all around. Take the matter of border checkpoints. Why, he is prime minister of Turkey, and he and his wife still had to wait a half-hour at one such checkpoint. This is intolerable.

Amr Moussa is a perfect representative of the Arab old guard — a guard that liberals and reformers long to replace. And, from this Davos stage, he gives a speech — a rant — more suited to the “Arab street” than to a rarefied international conference. He talks about the “carnage” that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people, the Israeli “assault” on them, Israel’s daily brutalization of them. He condemns the “military occupation” of which Israel is guilty. He gives no hint that, when the Israelis left Gaza in 2005, they left those Palestinians to self-government, something they had never been afforded.

He says that Israel starved and tormented Gazans, then asked them to be calm. “You starve them, you strangle them, and then you ask them to be quiet?” How can this be?

The world claims to believe in democracy, says Moussa, yet it refuses to give Palestinians their choice, namely Hamas. He even takes after Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas — unusual for the secretary general of the Arab League — saying that Abbas had had a full year’s negotiation with the Israelis “and didn’t bring anything.” Moussa repeats this: Abbas “didn’t bring anything” for his efforts, so why should people not turn to sterner elements?

It is very, very odd to hear the secretary general of the Arab League sounding like a spokesman for Hamas.

And he talks over and over about Israel’s killing of women and children: as though Israeli forces had deliberately overlooked the men, in pursuit of women and children to gun down or burn up.

All of this time, Peres has just sat there. I think he must be a masochist to attend conferences like this, and place himself in situations like this. And will he deliver, here in Davos? There is a lot on his shoulders: the burden of speaking for Israel, and the truth of recent events. He is now 85 years old, and Davos’s kind of Israeli, usually: the ultimate dove.

And here is what happens: Peres, the old Labour warrior — the old peace-processer — rises up magnificently, in maybe the most stunning and gratifying public performance I have ever witnessed.

He begins, “I heard them talking about Israel, but I couldn’t recognize the country I know.” He continues, “It’s very difficult when a democracy has to contend with a terrorist group,” bent on the democracy’s destruction. Television loves to show pictures of suffering Palestinians, but it does not show pictures of Israeli mothers, as they sit with their children through a night of rocket attacks. Before the recent operation, Hamas rockets rained down on Israelis, at random. The government showed great forbearance. But eventually it had to act.



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