JERUSALEM — One morning last month, a newspaper landed on the desk of Israeli President Shimon Peres featuring a cartoon of Miley Cyrus, her tongue stuck out sideways, her hair in two neat nubs on her head.
Peres does not know who Cyrus is. But the illustration — alongside a similarly cartoonish one of him — graced the frontpage of something called the Shimon Post, a daily newspaper produced by his team and aggregated from various media outlets, that gets emailed to thousands of diplomats, politicians and acquaintances around the world each day, including quite a few in the White House.
The image of Peres, 91, both topical and jarring, was just one in a steady stream of activity intended to ensure the elder statesman is seen as defying his age. He’s active, for instance, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. In speeches, Peres praises social media as a way for him to “keep up” with the conversation and engage. Last month, he even broke a Guinness Book record for teaching the largest-ever online civics class.
The campaign is working.
“Everybody loves him, they love to see him like this,” one aide said after BuzzFeed interviewed the president last month. “He is still the face of the left-wing peace camp.”
But here’s the thing: Peres has no smartphone and no tablet. When handled a laptop by an aide, he handled it awkwardly. He may have an energetic team managing his Facebook page, but he’s clearly not taking selfies or live-tweeting events on his own.
“There is this constant effort by people around Peres to make him seem as young, as youthful as possible and I would think that would be exhausting,” said one speechwriter who has worked with the president in the past, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still works for other political figures. “At the end of the day, wouldn’t it be more natural to celebrate him for his experience and for his wisdom than trying to constantly make it seem like he’s down with what the kids are doing?”
Peres, who often likes to talk of his own mentors — including Israel’s founder and first prime minister David Ben Gurion — has no successor of his own. Among the politicians who have tried to assume the mantle of peace throughout the years, none have come close to reaching Peres’ level of international acclaim. And so when Israel needs to present the face of the peace movement to the world, it’s often Peres who is called upon to speak.
“They really have no one else to call. If you want someone to represent Israel and peace, Shimon Peres is the only name big enough to headline an international event,” said the speechwriter. “And that’s something we should be worried about.”
Today, the Israeli left-wing peace camp is floundering for a new, charismatic leader that can be popular both at home and abroad. While others like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Zahava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, appeal to Israelis to support new peace initiatives, they have failed to cultivate the same cult of personality and international aplomb as Peres, who despite his senior age has no true successor.
The left appears to increasingly struggle to make peace part of their agenda. In the last Israeli elections, peace was barely mentioned on the campaign trail — and few Israeli voters appeared to notice. When asked why the center-left Labor Party had moved from its traditional focus on peace to a platform heavy on socioeconomic reforms, one campaign strategist replied: “Israelis are sick of hearing about peace. They want to hear about something we can solve.”
Peres admits however, that there may be a price for taking the unpopular positions in Israeli politics, especially those which champion difficult diplomacy. While he is celebrated today for his largely ceremonial role in the office of the president, he may go down in history as having the longest political career in Israel’s history, without ever winning a popular vote.
“There is a price to be paid for taking certain positions,” Peres said. “I know, I paid a price.”
Today the peace camp is often ridiculed by right-wing Israeli politicians who make up the bulk of the government coalition. Its activists are called “out of touch” and “naive” for continuing to pursue peace after decades of failed negotiations.
There is a skit that first aired on Eretz Nehederet, the Israeli version of Saturday Night Live, in November 2010 that features Angry Birds characters sitting around a negotiating table, reciting all the familiar tropes that bog down today’s peace talks. Arguments about borders, the return of refugees, and the future of Jerusalem have remained much the same over the last few years, and the skit remains widely popular today.
The Labor Party, which rose to prominence via the late Yitzhak Rabin’s push for peace, had long placed “striving for peace” at the top of its agenda during national elections. But last year, the party did not even mention peace during an election held in January 2013. Instead, led by one of its newer members, MP Shelly Yacimovich, Labor shifted its focus to socioeconomic reform.
“I think that was a mistake,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a former Labor candidate who is now head of the left-wing advocacy group Peace Now. “It distracted from the focus of the Labor Party, and people who did want to support peace did not have a clear candidate who stood for that.”
Peres clearly understands that.
“The problem is not personal merits. The problem is to ask, who do people trust? They trust the one that encourages people to go with him, not the one that rules, that forces people to be with him because he sees himself as a ruler,” said Peres.
But trust in the leaders of Israel’s peace camp has wavered in the last two decades since Peres signed the Oslo accords, which set the benchmark for what a two-state peace deal would look like. Repeated failed efforts to restart peace talks have caused fatigue. When Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 and Hamas took over two years later, many in Israel became convinced that land-for-peace deals that have been the backbone of previous negotiations, were no longer advisable. While polls regularly show Israelis have a negative view of “the left,”a recent poll by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace found that 67 percent support a two-state solution that would include a divided Jerusalem — the very compromise that has been the defining feature of the left wing peace camp’s agenda.
“It’s not that Israelis don’t support the ideas of the peace camp, the idea of peace, it’s that they don’t have a leader who they trust to represent them on those issues,” said Oppenheimer. “It’s not a failure of peace, it’s a failure of the leaders who can persuade the people that he or she can bring peace.”
In the last year, Labor has elected a new leader, veteran politician Isaac Herzog, to its helm. One of his first acts as leader was to go visit Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
It was an attempt, said Oppenheimer, to refocus the party on a peace agenda. But was it too little too late? Had the party already lost out on what remained of the voters who wanted to support a left-wing peace camp?
Gil Hoffman, political editor of the Jerusalem Post, tells a story of sitting with longtime politician and activist Avraham Burg in the Israeli parliament cafeteria in 2001. Burg, who was running for leader of the Labor Party at the time, was considered an up and coming member of the party.
“We were talking about taking up the mantle from Peres and Burg pointed outside the cafeteria and said, ‘you see that tree? That’s an evergreen tree, nothing can grow under that,’” said Hoffman. “I just thought, yes, that’s the anecdote for Peres and why no one was able to rise up and grow under him.”
For some, the desire for a leader who will bring peace remains. Shai Rimon is one of them. The 42-year-old father of four lives in Jaffa, a mixed Israeli-Palestinian community just south of Tel Aviv. He sends his children to schools where they learn both Arabic and Hebrew, and his car bares faded stickers from Peace Now.
“I know, I’m a dying breed,” he said. “I still think peace with [the Palestinians] is the most important issue on the table today. I still think about who is going to make peace and vote on that issue – first and foremost.”
Whereas Rimon once voted for the Labor Party, and then the left-wing Meretz Party, he said he found himself struggling during the 2013 elections to vote at all.
“Almost no one mentioned peace on the campaign trail. It was like the issue didn’t exist,” he said. “Where that was once all we wanted to know – how would this party or that party make peace – today we don’t even ask… I remember a time when we had politicians who we could look up to who stood for peace. But my children, they don’t have that – not anyone young and fresh at least who they can relate to.”
“It’s not that people don’t want peace. It’s that they don’t have any leaders who can stand for that.”