Israeli President Shimon Peres ignited a controversy by expressing optimism about the ability of Israel to reach a peace agreement with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
On Sunday, Peres made his statements about Abbas while addressing an event at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem that was attended by 160 Israeli ambassadors and diplomatic representatives from around the world.
“I have known Abu Mazen [Abbas] for 30 years and no one will change my opinion about him, even if they say that I can’t express this opinion because I am president,” Peres said. “The president should be allowed to evaluate people according to his experience. [Abbas] is a man with whom we can reach an agreement.”
Coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) harshly criticized Peres on Monday.
“You can easily dig through the archives and find that Peres made the same statements about Yasser Arafat,” Elkin told the Kol Berama radio station.
Elkin said that the job of the president is to appear impartial.
“A few weeks before an election, [Peres] entered into the heart of the ideological-political debate in Israel, saying very sharp things and taking a side,” said Elkin, adding that Peres had harmed the prestige of the presidency.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, head of the Likud Party’s election campaign, said “It is truly unfortunate that the president would choose to express his personal political opinions, which are so disconnected from the Israeli public’s with respect to Abu Mazen, a denier of peace.”
In contrast to the Likud Party’s strong response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Peres at a dedication ceremony for a new train station in Beit She’an on Sunday evening.
“I respect the president and I appreciate him,” Netanyahu said. “We meet often, including on Fridays. There are a range of opinions, and we exchange our opinions on many relevant current issues. This is how it has always been and this is how it will continue to be.”
The Prime Minister’s Office also issued an official statement on Sunday night, saying the prime minister is “aware that the president has a desire to express his opinions on political issues and is not surprised by them.”
“But the prime minister believes that the president, especially just before elections, is not supposed to say such things,” the statement added.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon (Likud) said: “The president does not need to get into political issues, thus I don’t want to have to debate with him over politics. But I can already see other parties taking advantage of his sentiments, of course, to attack us, as they often do in the international arena. The prime minister has tried from the outset of his government to get a diplomatic process moving; he was even ready to do a 10-month settlement freeze. But we are not ready to kowtow to Palestinian demands which they call ‘preconditions.’ From this perspective, I think we proved to have a thoughtful, responsible and uncompromising policy with respect to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, they are manipulating the Israeli public.”
Peres clarified that he doesn’t agree with Abbas’s every word and every action, but he also said: “I know the reality that Abu Mazen is the only Arab leader who got up and publicly said that he supports peace and opposes terror. Abu Mazen’s actions to prevent terror are brave to the extent of endangering his own life. Put yourselves in his shoes; you will discover that his recognition of a solution to the right of return and the fact that he will not return to Safed, the city he was born in, were important and brave statements. There is little time. In terms of likelihood, this is the process that we can carry out today.”
Peres added: “We need to directly say that anyone who doesn’t want a solution involving two states for two peoples must offer an alternative solution. What can happen instead? What will Israel’s future be? Otherwise, the reality will determine the solution, instead of us. A binational state endangers Zionism, Judaism and democracy in the State of Israel. I would like to live together as twins, but in such a small land deeply rooted in hatred, suspicion and cultural gaps it is impossible.”
Regarding Israel’s status in the world, Peres said: “Our diplomatic goal has always been to recruit friends and not more enemies. My life experiences have taught me that diplomacy is an art and that it is possible. We must shift away from the militant approach to the approach of moderate dialogue. What appears to be impossible will be possible if we act with intelligence.”
Left-leaning parties expressed their support for Peres’s sentiments and used the comment as a platform for criticism of the Likud.
“The Likud lashing out at the president, one of the symbols of the State of Israel, is aggressive and despicable,” said Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich. “Even under pressure, following a decline in the polls, does not give the Likud the legitimacy to damage the presidency.”
In response to Likud’s claims that Peres’s comments encourage international condemnation, Yachimovich said, “It is a contemptible statement. Peres stops attacks on Israel with his own person and he is our best ambassador.”
Labor Knesset member Isaac (Buji) Herzog also supported Peres. “President Peres decisively and clearly expressed the need for diplomatic action, rather than declarations and words,” he said. “The Netanyahu-Lieberman government has brought us to new heights of international isolation and stagnation that threatens the future of Israel as a state for the Jewish people.”
Hatnuah chairwoman Tzipi Livni said Peres “acted with appropriate responsibility and told the public the truth about Israel’s situation and its position.”
“This is how anyone who cares for Israel, certainly the president, should act,” she said.