(Part One of a Two-Part Interview)
Each time I see Shimon Peres, the 9th President of Israel, I'm filled with a sort of wistfulness: Imagine if it were this man who was leading his country's Foreign Ministry today, and not the current minister, who is so vulgar and embarrassing that his own government forces him to sneak in and out of Washington. Not so with Peres, who last night was awarded, in the presence of a former President, Bill Clinton, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by the current president, Barack Obama. Peres, who turns 89 this year, and is the last living connection in the Israeli government to Israel's founding father, his mentor David Ben-Gurion, seems, at least for him, somewhat awed by the honor. He is America-centric, a man who can articulate the idea of American exceptionalism better than most Americans. He is also partial to the two presidents he sat with last night at the White House. Of Obama, he says, "My God is he smart." And of Obama's commitment to Israel, he said he has no doubt.
The ceremony last night was a tribute to Peres, and his efforts - many flawed, but all sincere - to bring peace to Israel, and to bring about the birth of a Palestinian state. It was also a bit of a display of passive-aggressiveness by the White House, which venerates Peres, Israel's titular leader, while not appreciating very much at all Israel's actual governing leader, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The show of affection was designed, it seems, to send a message to Netanyahu: Try a bit harder to bring about peace, and you, too, will be welcomed to the White House the way we welcomed Peres.
A couple of weeks ago, David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic, and I sat down with Peres in his garden in Jerusalem to talk about Israel's relationship with the U.S., about Iran and the Palestinians, about the future of brain research (Peres can go on long riffs about science), and about the person who may be his favorite Jew in the world, Mark Zuckerberg. Two years ago, Peres, in a meeting in Jerusalem, asked me, "What is the name of the Jewish boy with the Facebook? Zuckerberger?" I said, "Zuckerberg." He answered: "I met him. A very nice boy. Also the Jewish boy from Google, a nice boy." (That would be Sergey Brin.)
In the two years since, Peres has gotten his own Facebook page, and has developed an elaborate theory of Zuckerberg, that he is a symbol of both Jewish ingenuity and the soaring spirit of American individual achievement. What he's looking for in Israel, in its energetic hi-tech sector, is the next Zuckerberg, he suggests. Science, creativity, and intellect are what will save Israel, he believes -- as opposed to holding on to specific pieces of territory.
In a meandering and charming conversation, Peres talked about the presidents he has known at some length. Ronald Reagan seems to be a personal favorite, along with George H.W. Bush and Clinton. The first president he met was Harry S. Truman, the man who helped make Israel a reality by recognizing it moments after it declared itself born. "With Truman I was surprised. I took him as a simple man, but he had a great sense of history, in part because of his Bible background. He had the strength of his convictions. He was elemental."
The first president he worked with closely was John F. Kennedy, and he told us a startling story about the day Kennedy forced Peres to create, on the fly, Israel's policy of nuclear opacity - not fully admitting that it possesses nuclear weapons.
"I was then the deputy defense minister, and the president invited me to the White House, but through the back rooms. I went with our ambassador in Washington, and I came in and Kennedy started to ask me questions like a machine gun, about our intelligence chief, about other issues. One after another, the questions. All of a sudden he said, 'Do you have a nuclear bomb?' I said, 'Mr. President, I assure you, Israel will not be the first country to introduce a nuclear weapon into the Middle East.' I didn't have a better answer."