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Israel’s Peres vows role as peacemaker

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israeli President Shimon Peres took his oath of office yesterday with a promise to use the largely ceremonial position as a bully pulpit to advance the Middle East peace process.

Though he never won a general election for prime minister outright in six tries, Israel's Nobel Peace Prize laureate dropped broad hints yesterday that he plans to use his new moral authority as head of state to press for peace talks with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors.

"I know that the president is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker, but he is permitted to dream. To set values, to lead with honesty and with compassion, with courage and with kindness. There is nothing prohibiting the president from performing good deeds," Mr. Peres said at his swearing-in at Israel's parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem.

"He must encourage peace processes. At home, with our neighbors, in the whole region."

At a time when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's peace agenda has been hobbled by criticism over his handling of the Lebanon war, Israel's 83-year old political elder statesman spoke with ambitious sweep about the potential for Israeli-Arab cooperation.

Alluding to his vision of a "new Middle East" of interlocked economies, Mr. Peres said he planned to push for the development of economic and environmental resources in the section of the Syro-African basin between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea — a region Mr. Peres referred to as "the valley of peace."

"The valley of peace extends along the border between us, the Hashemite Kingdom and the Palestinians. It may become a haven of cooperation between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians," he said.

"In the valley of peace, we will see how, for the first time, it will be possible to harness the economy as a bulldozer for peace."

Mr. Peres shared the Nobel Prize in 1994 with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the Oslo peace accords. He served a two-year stint as Israeli prime minister in the 1980s and again for a half-year after Mr. Rabin's assassination.

A longtime fixture at the top of Israeli politics — he was until yesterday the longest-serving parliament member and has held nearly every key Cabinet portfolio — Mr. Peres had been expected by some to treat the presidency as a glorified retirement from active politicking.

But before the ceremony, Mr. Peres told the Associated Press that Israel must "get rid of" its stewardship of the West Bank, insisting this is the majority view in Israel today. "I won't make any secrets of my mind."

Israeli press reports said Mr. Peres was planning meetings with Arab leaders and trips abroad. A former aide said that although he won't be able to conduct formal negotiations, Mr. Peres will have wide opportunities to contribute new ideas for advancing peace.

"He'll be a different president," said Uri Savir, who served as the Foreign Ministry director-general under Mr. Peres and now is the president of the peace center named for him.

"He'll be very active on the world scene. ... He'll be able to make state visits and will be received like a king, and he'll be able to visit in the Arab world. And he'll be able to improve Israel's standing abroad. That will have a lot of ramifications in every area."

Israel's president has traditionally served as a unifying symbol, remaining above the political fray on issues like territorial concessions. Past presidents who have ventured into political waters have aroused fierce debate about the boundaries of the president's job.

Already yesterday, there were reports that conservative opponents of Mr. Peres had staged symbolic protests, such as leaving the parliamentary chambers during the swearing-in.

Ron Breiman, a conservative columnist for the Web site of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, blamed Mr. Peres for "creating the ongoing division in the Jewish public in the country — between those addicted to the illusion of peace and those who correctly read reality."

"The past experience with Peres doesn't portend good things for the future," Mr. Breiman said. "There's no chance that someone at his age will change."