On the eve of a summit between President Barak Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to close gaps on confronting Iran, Mr. Obama meets today with an Israeli elder statesman who has staked out a more dovish position than the government.
Israeli President Shimon Peres’ position is supposed to be ceremonial, but octogenarian Nobel Peace laureate has served as an envoy on behalf of Mr. Netanyahu. That hasn’t stopped him letting his personal views be known: A report in the Haaretz newspaper last week said he opposes an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran right now, even though many Israeli leaders have been hinting at the possibility. Opposing an attack now puts Mr. Peres closer to the US president than some Israeli cabinet members.
The warm up presidential meeting on Sunday underscores the diversity of opinion in Israel on how to handle Iran, and shows that Israel's most famous diplomat is still a player on the international stage, even though he has no policy-making powers back at home.
"It's definitely a bully pulpit," says Mitchell Barak, a former aide to Peres. "President Peres has credibility but lacks the authority. And the prime minister has the authority but often lacks the credibility. So they are a good combination."
Before meeting Obama on Sunday, the Israeli President delivered the opening address of a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He was expected to say that there "no space" between the US and Israel on the desire to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. He also planned to praise Obama for brining security cooperation with the Israel to its "highest level," according to a copy of his speech distributed before the address.
The remarks are aimed at reducing bilateral tensions amid reports of friction between Netanyahu and Obama over just how to block Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Israel is reportedly lobbying the US to be more explicit about a potential strike against Iran.
Peres served as Israel's prime minister in the 1980s and briefly in the 1990s. He was a disciple of Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and served alongside Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. Peres is seen as the architect of Israel's peace accords with the Palestinians for which he, Mr. Rabin, and Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the recent past Peres has served as a mediator between the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Given the history of strained meetings between Netanyahu and Obama over the peace negotiations, the Israeli president is probably trying to make a final effort to ensure that the summit is a success, Barak said.
But once the meeting today is over, Peres will revert to his ceremonial role and is expected to leave Washington to clear the stage for Netanyahu and the US president to get down to business.