Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

A Great and Stirring Hour

Israel’s president Shimon Peres shines at Davos

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.

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.

#page# “What else could we do? People were coming to us and saying, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you protecting us?’ What else could we do? We had no choice.”

Moussa has talked about the Palestinians and democracy. And “Hamas has a unique idea about democracy,” says Peres: “You go through elections, and then you can start to shoot and kill and threaten. Democracy is not a matter of elections; it is a civilization.”

Peres then reads Moussa, Erdogan, and all of us the Hamas charter: which calls for the murder of Jews, as a holy command. As he proceeds from that, Peres gets more and more emotional, shouting into the microphone, perhaps not realizing how loud his voice is in the hall. Passion — indignation, idealism, and some despair — pours out of him, as he defends his country and, in a way, his life.

He explains that Israel left Gaza “completely” in 2005, at considerable cost: It was not easy to convince the Israeli public of the wisdom of it. And Israel left infrastructure there, including new infrastructure — greenhouses, for example, meant specifically for Palestinians. And militants immediately destroyed this infrastructure. They also immediately began to attack what some call “Israel proper.” There was no interest in building a state, or providing a decent life for Palestinians.

Despite the chaos, says Peres, “there was never a day of starvation in Gaza.” The only items that Israel did not permit to be brought in were “rockets from Iran” — and Hamas built tunnels for those.

Peres reminds his audience that Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan, the second those countries were willing. But Hamas has no such desire. And he has a special word for Erdogan, about checkpoints.

“I’m sorry you had to wait, but that is because many buses came in from the West Bank to Jerusalem full of dynamite. I was then prime minister, and I saw it with my own eyes: the blood, the bodies. And I had people” — Israelis — “screaming at me, ‘Traitor!’ and ‘Why are you killing us?’” (because Peres had favored soft policies toward the Palestinians).

He says to Erdogan, yelling, “Mubarak accused Hamas, not us! He knows the situation not less than you.” Peres is talking about responsibility for the Gaza conflict. “And President Abbas knows the situation not less than you — and he accused Hamas, not us!” By the way, what about Hamas’s treatment of other Palestinians, their political opponents — whom they kneecap and torture and toss off buildings, “in broad daylight”?

Odd that it should fall to the Israeli president to defend Palestinian society.

He talks about the millions of dollars he has helped raise to care for sick Palestinian children, in Israel. He talks about his lifelong commitment to peace and reconciliation. And he is quite clear about the Hamas practice of placing its fighters and weapons in kindergartens, hospitals, etc. “They hide behind innocent families,” Peres says. Israel placed 250,000 phone calls in 20 days to Palestinian civilians, pleading with them to evacuate, for Israel would shell Hamas. “What else could we do?”

Peres is visibly anguished at what Moussa has rightly called “carnage.” And I think of something Golda Meir said, years ago: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children; we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

Turning to Ban Ki-moon, Peres says, “I’m very sorry about the United Nations building” — but Hamas fighters had been shooting from there. And when NATO forces bombed Belgrade and hit the Chinese embassy, did they mean to, or want to? And did they mean or want to kill so many civilians in that operation?

Winding down, Peres says, “Israel does not need a ceasefire,” a formal ceasefire, “because we never started one bullet. And the minute they stop shooting, there will be a ceasefire. We don’t need anything else.”

After this performance, Prime Minister Erdogan is prepared to speak again. He says, “President Peres, you are old, and your voice is loud out of a guilty conscience. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.” Erdogan wants more time to speak, but the moderator, Ignatius, says we are out. Erdogan stalks off the stage, saying, “Davos is over for me,” not just for this year but for all time. Peres says to him, as Erdogan makes his exit, “What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?”

In short order, Erdogan will return to a hero’s welcome in Istanbul, where people wave placards that read “Conqueror of Davos.” The prime minister’s wife, Emine, will declare, “Everything Peres said was a lie.” But the opposite was true. Shimon Peres rose up to speak important truths, in an atmosphere that cried out for them. It was a great and stirring hour, probably impossible to forget.

– Mr. Nordlinger is an NR senior editor.

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