JERUSALEM (EJP) --- Israeli President Shimon Peres drew criticism from across the political spectrum, after claiming Israel “cannot go it alone” in striking Iran, in an interview on Thursday.
The comments, made in an interview with Israeli Channel 2 to mark the statesman’s 89th birthday, threatened to compromise the largely ceremonial nature of the presidential role in Israeli politics.
His comments immediately withdrew reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides, who claimed that “Peres has forgotten what the president’s role is”.
Describing a pre-emptive strike on Iran as “an American interest”, Peres claimed it was in Israel’s interest to “forestall” any military action to secure US support, adding that “there are questions of coordination and timing, but because of the nature of the danger, we are not alone”.
He also contradicted previous suggestions reported by the Israeli media that Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are “almost finally” in agreement to strike Iran, claiming he does not see an attack as likely to occur in the lead-up to America’s presidential elections on November 6.
Members of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party were quick to jump on the comments as evidence of disloyalty to the premier, with MK Miri Regev saying “Peres remains the same old Peres: leftist, defeatist, an underminer who doesn’t support the prime minister”.
Sources close to Netanyahu said that Peres had made numerous wrong assessments of the security situation in the past, particularly in opposing the attack on the Iraqi reactor Ozirak, in believing the Oslo Accords, would usher in a “new Middle East”, and in minimizing the threats posed by the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which led to thousands of rockets and missiles being fired on the South.
In response to Peres’s statements, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the difference between the president’s role and the prime minister’s was clear.
“The president has a symbolic role, while the prime minister and the government are the ones who make decisions. It is important to keep this division for the sake of the democratic nature of the State of Israel and especially for subjects like these.”
Meanwhile Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) MK Zevulun Orlev criticised Peres for “granting immunity” to the Iranian regime and endangered the Jewish State, by revealing Israel’s reticence to act without the support of the US. “Peres has harmed the government’s ability to reach an informed decision, and tied its hands with regard to defending its citizens,” he continued.
However, the opposition Labor party were quick to defend the president, with chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich claiming it was his inherent responsibility to hold the government to account. “The president expressed deep concern and responsibility for the standing and the security of the state of Israel,” she said, “and it would behove Netanyahu to listen well to the president and internalise his words”.
Thursday’s interview was not the only instance of Peres drawing criticism for making uncharacteristically political statements about Israeli policy in recent months. Last month, at an annual memorial to Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, the president provoked uproar by speaking out against continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, insisting that should it continue “it’s doubtful (Israel) would remain Jewish”.
As with the current controversy, his comments regarding Israeli settlement policy seem carefully-timed, coming only two days after the Netanyahu-commissioned Levy report into West Bank outposts found that “Israel does not meet the criteria of ‘military occupation’ as defined under international law” in the Fourth Geneva Convention and therefore settlements and outposts established there are legal.
The apparent attempts to undermine government policy have led some analysts to speak of a growing rift between the two political statesman. Whilst Netanyahu’s aides were quick to criticise his comments, Barak, whose own statements were somewhat called into question by the nature of Peres’ revelations, remained diplomatic. The Defence Secretary’s aides, far from criticising him, said “the president has contributed a lot. He has a right to say whatever he wants, and his positions are known”.
Netanyahu has increasingly been portrayed by much of the international community and by factions within Israel itself as a dominant and somewhat autocratic political force and his surprise announcement of the formation of a national unity government with opposition party Kadima in May, an attempt to store up support for his preferred Iran mandate.
The US viewed the coalition, which gifted the government an overwhelming 94 seat advantage in the 120 seat Knesset, as a golden opportunity to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.
After initial positive signs, highlighted by the exchange of letters between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, this came to nothing and after heralded talks between Abbas and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz were inexplicably cancelled, the coalition agreement soon disintegrated.
Peres’ respect for the US administration and President Barack and Obama is thought to have been a critical factor in his latest calls for Israeli restraint on Iran. Speaking of his respect for Obama in his official address on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in June, Peres paid tribute to Obama as “a great leader, a genuine friend” of Israel.
His reliance on America’s judgement with regard to Iran is evidence of his trust in the president, as he insisted that “we have to work together with America”. Obama is thought to be reluctant to instigate imminent military action in Iran, with White House Press Secretary issuing a statement Monday insisting the president “continues to believe that there is time and space for diplomacy”.
Referring to Netanyahu’s recent statements that Israel can only rely on itself in matters of security, Peres responded: “Israel needs to depend on itself, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to give up on its friends.”
With that in mind, he is likely to have been concerned by the red carpet welcome Netanyahu offered Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last month, an unprecedented move for an unelected figure and a potentially incendiary action in light of Obama’s continuing quest for a second successive term in government.
Peres is also claimed to have been bitterly disappointed by Netanyahu’s failure to bring Abbas to the negotiating table. Abbas, for his part, has consistently refused to enter into direct talks with Israel whilst it continues to pursue settlement activity, another of Peres’ gripes with the government.
Whilst Netanyahu claimed in an interview with the US Time magazine earlier this year that “the Palestinians will never have a better partner than me” in peace negotiations, Peres is thought to view his Palestinian counterpart as the best chance for Israel to achieve peace with the Palestinians.