I woke this morning to the incredibly sad news of the passing of Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s founding fathers. By any measure he was an extraordinary and gifted man, and one who I was fortunate enough to meet in person, in 2007. It was a brief encounter, but it had a powerful impact on me, and has become a foundation plank of how I look at the world. I first wrote about that meeting almost three years ago, and I thought it might be worth reposting it again today.
Coffee in Tel Aviv (2007)
From 2006 to 2008 I was responsible for the opening of an Israeli office of the investment firm at which I worked, and through which we considered a number of significant investments in that country. We also hired a few high profile ex-politico types to help us out. All of which made some ripples in the Israeli business pond, a consequence of which being that I got invited to meet with various Israeli ministers, politicians and bureaucrats.
But of all the meetings I ever had in that time, the undisputed highlight was an invitation to meet with Shimon Peres: national pioneer, elder statesman of Israeli politics, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and a man who has held almost every ministerial position in Israel, including twice serving as Prime Minister. When I met him Peres was Israel’s President-elect.
A colleague and I were ushered into his Tel Aviv office, which was jam-packed with memorabilia from Peres’ life in the public eye. There were certificates, awards, plaques, and framed photos of Peres, along with a veritable who’s-who of world leaders covering the walls. His desk was buried under papers, the shelves overloaded with books, and the office had a stately and venerable feel to it.
For about ten minutes I sat on the couch, nervously waiting for the great man to arrive. I rehearsed in my head what I would say, and expected that the entire meeting would be a perfunctory five minute audience – a quick hello and handshake before being shuttled out of the office by one of Peres’ many minders.
It was a nervousness that became almost palpable when Peres finally walked into the room – silver-haired, upright, and almost regal in his bearing. But then he sat down on the couch, right next to me, and spoke to me in fluent, albeit heavily accented, English. “So Eytan, what can I tell a nice Jewish boy like you about Israel?” he began. And it in an instant he had transformed, right in front of my eyes, from being a luminary of global politics into a kind and gentle Yiddisher grandfather.
Before I knew it, we had been chatting for twenty-five minutes. The whole time, he barely broke eye contact with me. He didn’t answer the phone, or look around once, and for the entire time I spent talking to him, it felt like I was the only thing that mattered in his life at that very moment.
At one point he asked whether I had ever considered moving to Israel, and leaning in close placed a hand on my knee and said, in an almost conspiratorial whisper: “You know, when I was your age, David Ben-Gurion once told me……” I honestly can’t remember anything else that came after, because I was overwhelmed at the sheer madness of the scenario: Shimon Peres, in person, passing on to me wisdom he had learned from Ben-Gurion. I mean, come on, seriously?
After a few minutes it was clear that I was in the presence of someone possessed of a truly gifted, extraordinary intellect; a person who was deeply thoughtful and inquisitive. His knowledge bank was vast, and he seemed remarkably “in touch”. At one point in our discussion he mentioned something about his iPod, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, given that I was less than half his age and still didn’t have one (I later read that even though in his seventies at the time, Peres had championed the early adoption of the internet in Israel, and became the first ever Prime Minister to have a personal web-site).
But more than anything, three things are especially memorable to me from that meeting with Shimon Peres. The first was his energetic, infectious optimism. The second was his ability to communicate complex thoughts in a way that was clear and simple, reducing difficult issues into much easier to understand components. And the third was his evident willingness to challenge the status quo, no matter how entrenched that might be (Peres swapped positions and politics repeatedly over the years, ditching ideology in favour of his ever evolving personal belief in what was right).
During our meeting Peres mentioned a plan to develop a large-scale irrigation scheme to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, and along the way spawn massive agricultural and industrial projects in the desert, on territory shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Known as the “Valley of Peace Initiative”, it was one of Peres’ pet projects, never mind that almost everyone else I had ever met in Israel considered it to be a fanciful pipedream, of no relevance other than to show how their President-to-be had finally lost his marbles.
Although when Shimon Peres himself explained it to me, with maps and diagrams and passion in his voice, it seemed anything but fanciful. Whatever the technical merits, it became very clear in listening to this brilliant man speak that this was a physical manifestation of a very precise and deeply thought through view on how to change things in Israel, for the better.
“You know what the solution is?” he asked me, before immediately launching into the answer to his own question: “The solution is for the Palestinians to become rich”.
He continued: “When I was young, what mattered was territory. A nation needed to have a physical territory with a clear border to defend. But now we live in a world where it is almost impossible to control how people and ideas move around, so borders and land don’t matter that much. In today’s world, economics is what matters more than territory. If people are rich, they won’t risk their good life for the sake of ideology. But if people have nothing to lose, well then, what can you expect of them? Long-term peace with our neighbours will come when we are all joined together economically, and when they are as rich as we are. Then they will lose the will to fight with us”.
In many respects, a sophisticated rehash of Tom Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory”, which posits that “no two countries with McDonald’s in them will ever go to war”, the theory being that once people are well-off enough to support burger chains, they have little interest in war and conflict. And whilst subsequent commentators have taken much delight in finding examples where the McDonald’s theory has proven untrue, it certainly makes intuitive sense to me. Especially as explained by Shimon Peres.
In the end, it’s always about the economics. D’uh.
We live in a world with difficult, complicated problems. Finding enduring solutions to these problems will require visionary leaders to step forward, with a long-lens view of time. Today more than ever we need inspirational people at the helm, who are not only smart, intelligent and experienced, but who have the courage and conviction needed to both champion their cause, and also to change their mind along the way if circumstances require.
Israel, and the whole world, lost one of the finest examples of this sort of leader today.
For me, if there is one thing above all else to learn from Peres’ extensive legacy, it is this: no matter how tall an order it may appear, we should never abandon hope for a better world, or give up trying to achieve it.
Indeed, as Shimon Peres himself once said: “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist”.