Peres: Peace With Patience

Although the Middle East peace process remains stalled, June was a good month for longtime peace champion, Israeli President Shimon Peres. On June 13, President Barack Obama presented him with the Medal of Freedom -- America's highest civilian honor -- during a formal White House dinner. President Obama heaped praise upon the popular Israeli statesman, calling him "a warrior for peace" who has fought for "peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel's Arab neighbors." Upon his return to Israel, Peres served as celebrity host of his own star-studded Presidential Conference, an annual event that this year drew such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, and an assortment of political figures, diplomats, security experts, entrepreneurs, economists, writers, and Nobel laureates. The theme of the conference, "Facing Tomorrow," encompassed many topics, among them the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

I had the privilege of attending the bloggers session hosted by the Israeli President and took the liberty of asking him whether he agreed with those observers who have been arguing that time is running out for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peres's response was telling. "The right thing [to do] is to make peace right away so that [time] won't run out," he said, before quickly adding: "You need also patience in life." He spent the next minute or so extolling the virtue of patience and rejecting the notion that the two-state option is becoming irrelevant -- only to reemphasize the critical importance of this solution: "There is no better solution, and a just one, for the Palestinians and us than to have two states living in peace and trying to help each other instead of fighting each other," he concluded.

Peres, indeed, knows a bit about patience, having worked tirelessly for Mideast peace for decades. He has seen ups and downs in the unfolding drama of "the peace process," having been a key player in the historic Oslo accords of the mid-1990s. In the last three years, Peres' patience has been tested by the deadlock in peace talks since the ascension to power over three years ago of Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to continue the talks from where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had left off. Netanyahu has led the most right-wing government since that of his mentor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died last weekend.

In these last three years of diplomatic stalemate, Peres has been frustrated by the intransigence on both sides. Not surprisingly, he has typically been more critical of the behavior of the Palestinians -- publicly, at least -- than with that of his own country's leadership. These days, however, he appears to be far more exasperated with Netanyahu than with President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu's Palestinian counterpart. Not that he has chastised the Prime Minister publicly on the matter. In his largely ceremonial role, Peres has been careful not to overstep his authority or to come across as overly political. But there are signs that Peres's patience with Netanyahu is wearing thin.

Since Netanyahu's election, Peres has sought to influence him on key security matters including the Iranian nuclear program and the diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians. Early on, he was among Netanyahu's most reliable cheerleaders abroad, urging Abbas to "trust Netanyahu" and conclude an agreement with him while repeatedly assuring a skeptical Obama administration that Netanyahu was determined to reach a two-state peace deal -- "He came from the right, but he's no longer a rightist," insisted Peres. In the last year, however, Peres has been notably less vocal in this regard. In interviews, including one conducted by this writer in April, Peres has studiously evaded questions about Netanyahu's level of commitment to peacemaking.

Privately, he has reportedly expressed disagreements with Netanyahu's policies and is said to be quite flustered by him. Publicly, though, he prefers -- for now, at least -- to promote peace while avoiding a public confrontation with Netanyahu.

At the same time, Peres has not shied away from lauding Abbas, whom he continues to see as"a worthy partner" who "can deliver the goods." Last December, Peres revealed that he and Abbas had held secret negotiations, with Netanyahu's consent, in an effort to revive the peace process. However, Netanyahu ordered that these talks be aborted in order "to give the International Quartet a chance" to promote its own proposals, which have since fallen by the wayside.

With the peace process frozen and Washington focused on the elections, not even the most optimistic among political observers believes that an agreement will be reached this year. As Peres turns 89 next month, it will be interesting to see how he squares his counsel of patience with a his warning that, if a two-state agreement is not reached soon,