Gideon Levy :Shimon Peres and the struggle for freedom? Let’s not get carried away
President Shimon Peres added another medal to his already overloaded trophy case last week when the U.S. Congress awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal. His heart bursting with pride, Peres was quick to say he was embarrassed. He’ll surely overcome his embarrassment – the medal is more of an embarrassment to us.
Peres, the man who has always tried to avoid receiving such honors, has already won a Presidential Medal of Freedom. A prize for Peres – what else is new? But one might feel a bit uncomfortable after perusing the list of people who have won this honor, especially after the Israeli media has noted that Peres is one of only a handful of non-Americans to receive the award, like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Aung San Suu Kyi.
A great majority of the 73 medal winners have been Americans, the first one being George Washington on March 25, 1776. An Israeli couple has also won the award – Avital and Natan Sharansky.
The trait common to almost all recipients is that they fought bravely for freedom and justice while paying a severe personal price. Mandela sat in prison for 27 years until a just government was established in his country, while Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi remained behind bars for years for fighting her country’s dictators. The same goes for Mother Teresa, the nun of Albanian origin who spent most of her life in India helping the impoverished.
So now Peres joins them. Mandela and Mother Teresa might be turning in their graves. Peres and the struggle for freedom? Peres and the fight for justice? Peres and a heavy personal price? You’ve gotten carried away, honorable American legislators, very carried away. Right, some people say Peres received the prize in order to upset Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that the prize was actually meant for all Israel. But why? For what?
No Israeli, certainly no living one, is more responsible for the settlement enterprise and perpetuating the occupation. Peres is a founding father of both. No one alive is more responsible for turning Israel into a pariah state.
Yes, Peres had an alibi and a cover as the nation’s sweetheart. As the nation’s most beloved figure in recent years, we have recognized him as the face of the nation. But what’s hiding behind that face? The same occupation, the same expropriation, the same refusal. Without the occupation for which he bears responsibility, there would be no need for his thrilling yet hollow calls for peace during his PR tours around the world, in countries that love to love Peres.
The seven years of his presidency, which are now coming to a close, have been a pleasant time for Israel. Peres has been a symbol of peace and rationality, the good cop against bad-cop Netanyahu. But also as president, Peres has failed to risk his position in order to achieve peace, to undermine the bad cop. Then as now, as he celebrates his jubilee as an MK and government official, as he marks 70 years as a public figure in Israel – an all-time record – there’s no peace, only more occupation.
We can’t lament Israel’s situation and fail to recognize someone who has been central to its decision-making for so many years. It’s impossible to say the government is bad but Peres is good. Peres has been the government’s satchel of lies – and now he has received a prize for it.
Congress’ explanation for honoring the president includes a Peres quote from 2013: “America is so great and we are so small. I learned that you don’t measure us by size, but by values .... When it comes to values, we are you and you are us.” Well, this is as fitting as it could be, both for the winner and the ones bestowing the award.