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AP Interview: Peres, at 90, still going strong

Tuesday - 6/18/2013, 2:32pm  ET

U.S. actor Robert De Niro takes a photo of members of the media prior to his meeting with Israel's President Shimon Peres at the President's residence in Jerusalem Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

DAN PERRY
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- As Shimon Peres turns 90, the indefatigable Israeli president is doing what he has always done: looking ahead, preparing for the next challenge and believing that he will see Middle East peace in his lifetime.

Old age has hardly slowed him down. If anything, it seems to have handed Peres a measure of the grace that eluded him as a younger man. And at a time when Israel is widely criticized for its ongoing occupation and continued settlement of war-won land, he operates as something of a one-man reminder that the country once aimed -- in its 1948 Declaration of Independence -- to be a "light unto the nations."

"For me, what is important is tomorrow, the next day. What happened until now is over, unchangeable. I'm not going to spend time on it. So I am really living in the future," said Peres in an interview with The AP. "I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better."

Peres seemed energetic and spiffy in a dark suit and purple tie as he sat in his office, whose book-lined shelves include three devoted entirely to his own works, in Hebrew and myriad translations. The mention of old age seemed to deeply startle him, as did any notion of retirement or even vacation, which he dismissed as a "waste of time."

On Tuesday, Peres launches a three-day event called the "President's Conference" -- an annual gathering of artists, thinkers and leaders whose global guest list reflects an extraordinary profile on the world stage: More than any other prominent Israeli politician he seems to largely be forgiven for his country's extremely messy conflict with the Palestinians.

A politician of astounding longevity -- he was a young aide to the country's founding father David Ben-Gurion at the time of independence in 1948 and a top defense official in the 1950s -- Peres has nonetheless been strangely unsuccessful for much of his career. Despite having slipped into the prime minister's post three times over the years, each tenure was short-lived. He never won an election outright, losing outright four times and tying once, earning a reputation as a grasping manipulator who was also a bit of a schlemiel.

His propensity for aphorism -- "You can make omelets out of eggs, but not eggs out of omelets!" -- has befuddled many a campaign crowd. And the distinctive cadence, which to this day betrays his Polish roots, is still a mimic's delight. An unbending belief in peace has been taken by many Israelis as dangerous naivete. And it is ironic as well: Peres was once something of a security hawk, and he is widely credited with engineering, a half century ago, Israel's status as a nuclear power.

It took a meltdown by his predecessor in the mostly ceremonial president's role for Peres to finally win the recognition he had coveted for so many years. Caught up in a devastating sex scandal, Moshe Katsav was forced to step down in 2007 to face rape charges. Seeking to stabilize the cherished institution, parliament turned to Peres and elected him president. Katsav was convicted and is now in prison.

Peres, 83 at the time, seemed to benefit simply by not being the tongue-tied Katsav. Statesmanlike and serious, supposedly above politics in his new role, his popularity skyrocketed among Israelis at last.

Peres has used the presidency to speak out as a voice of reason on political affairs, cautioning political leaders against attacking Iran's nuclear program last summer, and packaging himself as a lovable grandfatherly figure. He has embraced Facebook and frequently meets with children and young Israelis.

"Shimon Peres has undergone a miraculous transformation which almost all politicians in the world would love to experience," said Israeli historian Tom Segev. "For most of his public life, he was the most hated politician in Israel. He was the symbol of petty, dirty politics. Since he became president almost all of a sudden his people began to love him. It's almost like a fairy tale."

Peres attributed the stunning turnaround to the power of the presidency. Freed from the constraints of political intrigue, "all of a sudden I discovered I don't need power. ... But if (the people) think that I came to serve, they will trust (me) and I could have achieved many things that maybe in the government I wouldn't be able to do."

A poll in March published by the Haaretz daily showed Peres with a 74 percent approval rating, far ahead of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at 48 percent. The poll, conducted by the Dialog agency, questioned 473 people and had a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

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