DEAD SEA, Jordan — Long before he arrived, the press pack was gathering.
First, the reporters, a few dozen in number, were asked to wait for him behind elastic-tape barriers in one corner of the entrance lobby at the King Hussein convention center here. But then, as their number grew, it became clear that the space allocated to the journalists was too small.
The courteous but firm stewards of the World Economic Forum did a rapid rethink, and chivvied the journalists toward the center of the lobby. And still their numbers grew. The metal poles with their elastic tapes were repositioned again and again. But it was a hopeless task.
So when, late Sunday morning, President Shimon Peres arrived for what was merely a brief appearance, before the main business of the day had even begun, the hundred-plus reporters simply mobbed him, albeit politely: those at the front on their knees at his feet, microphones and mobiles held aloft; those with old-fashioned notebooks crowding at the sides; and the TV cameras on high at the back.
Just a few weeks short of 90, the president speaks softly, and was almost inaudible, so the reporters pressed in even closer, hanging on his every word. And Peres, the Nobel laureate, Israel’s Mr. Peace, did not disappoint. This was “the time for peace,” he said. “Skepticism and doubts” must be overcome. The “missing links” can be filled in. We must not “waste time.”
The World Economic Forum loves Shimon Peres. The Arab leaders and key figures who come to WEF events love Shimon Peres. International statespeople and businesspeople and even cynical, wearied, globe-trotting journalists love Shimon Peres. His years as a Labor hawk, outflanking perennial rival Yitzhak Rabin from the right, founding settlements he would now dismantle, are long forgotten — if, that is, they were ever known to most of those who applaud him today. Shimon Peres is the wise, tolerant, gentle, and above all, the peace-making face of Israel. If only Shimon Peres, runs the unspoken commentary that follows him down the hallways, if only Shimon Peres were running Israel.
The Arab Spring has long since turned to autumn and winter, but for some speakers in the meeting rooms, little in the region has changed — or, more accurately, can be acknowledged to have changed. In a debate that is supposed to focus on Syria, the representative of Human Rights Watch finds the opportunity to sally forth with lengthy criticism of Israel’s occupation. In another panel session, just a few minutes later, Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League and failed Egyptian presidential candidate, contends that the Palestinian issue remains the core regional challenge. “The Arab Spring is not going to relegate the Palestinian issue to the seventh point on the agenda… It is the first point,” he declares.
Outside the media center on the first floor, the senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat flits from one Arab TV station camera tripod to another, repeating that Israel has “to choose between settlements, dictation, incursion… and peace,” and declaring that there will be no progress until Israel halts settlements and agrees to a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders. “We all agree with President Shimon Peres…,” Erekat says in one interview. “He should focus on convincing Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu…”
Peres: good. Netanyahu: obdurate, stubborn, unreasonable, dreadful.
Though he holds no formal executive position, Peres was the only Israeli political leader at this conference. Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu neither came himself, nor sent one of his plentiful supply of ministers. There were no Israelis hosting any of the panels. Indeed, there were no Israeli panelists — though the joint Israeli-Palestinian business initiative for peace, “Breaking the Impasse,” played a starring role.
Dozens of Israeli journalists were here, many of them — this writer included — coming just for the final Sunday of this three-day event on a bus arranged by, you guessed it, the Israeli president’s office. Some of the Israeli reporters renewed acquaintances with Arab colleagues. Others went seeking such contacts, uncertain whether this Arab businessman or that Gulf politician would welcome or rebuff them.
But Peres sailed serenely through the day, holding separate meetings with leaders, briefing the Israeli press, elevated on clouds of regional admiration far above the man he takes care to call his partner, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In Sunday evening’s closing plenary session, Abbas delivered a familiar speech, blaming all problems preventing peace on the incomprehensible intransigence of the Israelis, while asserting that the Palestinians under his leadership would never pose a threat to Israel, and had never harmed Israelis. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers who had wandered into Palestinian areas had always been returned within minutes, he declaimed at one point, apparently disconnecting himself and his people from the entire Second Intifada (and the 2000 Ramallah lynch) of the Arafat era.
Speaking immediately after Abbas had completed his talk to minor applause, Peres defused the verbal assault by saying simply that he wasn’t going to answer the PA president’s arguments because, however valid they were, things were worse when peace efforts first began, and the sides just had to move forward. “All these differences, they are deep, they are moving, they are important,” said Peres, but they needed to be discussed “around the table.
“Let’s sit together,” he urged, voice rising, departing from his prepared text. “You’ll be surprised at how much can be achieved in open and direct and organized meetings. I can see your points; I’m sure you can see our points; but we have a joint point — that all of us have to sit together and change it into a peace.”
The applause in the hall was long and warm.
And then came John Kerry, the US secretary of state, the man with a plan. He too departed from his prepared text, at the very beginning of his remarks. Looking to Peres and Abbas, he offered, “I have an agreement here which you can both come up and sign if you want.”
The laughter was polite, strained. Peres, you could hear the gathered notables thinking, would never have made so tactless an attempt at humor.