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February 6, 2014 1:21 pm

Opinion: Breaking Records With Shimon Peres

avatar by Michael Widlanski

Israeli President Shimon Peres leading the world's largest online civics class at Cisco's Israel headquarters. Photo: GPO.

Israeli President Shimon Peres leading the world's largest online civics class at Cisco's Israel headquarters. Photo: GPO.

Israel’s president Shimon Peres just set a “Guinness world record” for the world’s largest civics class, teaching more than 9,000 high school students in 215 classrooms across Israel, but there are some  questions he did not answer:

  • Is President Peres, a man who amassed Israeli and Olympic records for highly questionable tactics in his long political career, really the right person to teach civics?
  • If  “civics”  means that officials be  open and accountable for promises and policies, is it right to pick as a civics teacher a man who evaded questions about his conduct in sensitive  matters? [These span the Lavon Affair (Ha-esek ha-bish) in 1954,  trying to buy the government in 1990 (what Rabin called “ha-esek ha-masriah”), allegedly leaking Israeli plans to bomb Iraq’s reactor in 1981, and, the ill-fated Oslo Accords of 1993, among others.]
  • Should Israeli taxpayers really have to pay the bills for a man who, even after a 70-year career, still has an inexhaustible appetite for expensive travel and public relations stunts like having his face carved into a field?

After all, would Americans choose a Richard Nixon, Chicago mayor Richard Daley (whose political machine was incredibly corrupt and efficient) or the slick Bill Clinton (who rented out the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House)  for teaching civics classes?

And if Peres is really qualified to teach civics, then should Israelis start queuing up to take cues from the likes of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert? Maybe convicted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich or convicted President Moshe Katsav can get time off their prison terms by talking to students?

If there is one sure thing in Israeli politics, it is that Shimon Peres will be nose-deep in politics even when he pretends to be “above politics.”

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Israel’s president  is supposed to be a non-partisan and ceremonial job, like being queen of England, but Shimon Peres acts like a king, and has had a royally good time as president, pretending  he is also prime minister or at least foreign minister, lobbying and offering policy options.

Foreign visitors come to discuss policy, and Mr. Peres is glad to publicize the fact that he disagrees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres may be right and Netanyahu may be wrong on some things, but a civics teacher would say that Netanyahu was elected to make policy, not Peres.

Peres is also the only Israeli president in history who considered using his job as a springboard to run once again for office, and he is the only Israeli president who has run a “think tank” that pushes a partisan agenda and still gets public monies while he is still in office.

Israel’s Comptroller General and other outside observers have raised many questions about the high expenses and travel budget of the Peres presidency. Many have questioned his parallel think-tank-universe where Peres acts like he is a sovereign government.

Sadly, most of the Israeli media treat Peres as a kind of Teddy-Bear.

But Shimon Peres is not just a Teddy Bear. He is the longest-serving Israeli politician, with a career that goes back to the Biltmore Conference of 1943

Israeli media fawn over Peres and claim he is the one constant in Israeli politics, but they miss the mark because the most constant thing about Peres, aside from  his ambition, is a record-breaking inconstancy that now afflicts many other Israeli politicians.

It is now common in Israeli politics for politicians to change their parties the way  people change their socks, but the man who set the standard was Shimon Peres.

Peres was once Labor, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Then he was in Rafi, with Ben-Gurion for a few years. When B-G left, Peres was in Labor again. After running for prime minister umpteen times, he fell off the horse, had a Pauline conversion   and joined Kadima, led by Ariel Sharon, whose views he detested.

Those who forgot how this happened should recall how Mr. Peres, after seeking the ceremonial title of “president of Labor” (when Barak was Labor leader) promised Labor that he (Peres) would not run again. He swore he would  act as an elder statesman, as a non-partisan caretaker.

Peres broke that promise—like so many others—when he saw that he had one last chance to be Labor Party leader by running against union activist Amir Peretz. But Peres managed to lose to Peretz, the man who does not know one end of a binocular from the other. Heartbroken at losing, Peres defected from the very party he had promised to lead.

Can one imagine Americans accepting such a turn of events? Can one imagine Hillary Clinton losing the Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama in 2008 and then switching sides and running as the vice presidential candidate for Republican John McCain?

Basically that is what Peres did, and it is certainly a world record—but for chutzpah, not civics.

Dr. Michael Widlanski, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by  Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches atBar Ilan University, was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, editing the Orient House Archives of the PLO. He has been Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of California, Irvine 2013-14.

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