As birthday parties go, the one Shimon Peres has been holding this week is one of the most opulent and expensive in Israel's history. The festivities – and its main event, the annual Presidential Conference - cost upwards of an estimated NIS 2 million ($450,000), and saw hundreds of guests from abroad enjoying free or subsidized plane tickets, hotel stays, and restaurant lunches and dinners. The Conference, which always attracts speakers, executives, and celebrities who come to pay tribute to Peres, took on an added measure of celebration this year, as Peres celebrated his 90th birthday with the thousands that attended the conference.
While there were many highlights of this year's event – including a concert by singer Barbra Streisand in honor of Peres – the most well-publicized event was a speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Monday. For that speech, Clinton was supposed to have been paid $500,000, with the money coming from the Jewish National Fund. After an outcry last week the JNF decided to withdraw its support from the event, and Clinton announced that he would donate his “honorarium” to scholarship funds. It's not clear, however, if the former president did not receive other funds.
Interviews with a number of foreign visitors and dignitaries revealed that many received subsidized airfares to the event, while others had their plane tickets paid for. The funding came from numerous sources in Israel and abroad.
In the past few days, Israeli media has been somewhat critical of Peres and the “cult of personality” endemic to the Presidential Conference – with a Yediot Achronot op-ed piece facetiously describing the president as “Kim Il-Peres,” an allusion to the former North Korean leader Kim il-Jung, who also inspires “great admiration.” In the piece, columnist Noam Dvir wrote that “the most irritating thing in the celebration was the exaggerated praise. Peres, with all due respect, is not a 'social Albert Einstein' like Clinton called him. He did not invent the theory of relativity, he did not invent science or nanotechnology, although he often mentions them in his speeches, both relevantly and irrelevantly.
“The president is neither our father nor our king,” Dvir continued. “Peres is laudable for some of his deeds. He is worthy of admiration for the fact that in spite of his advanced age, he is full of energy. The cult of personality he enjoyed on Tuesday is uncommon in Israeli political culture and contradicts all the values Peres preaches. What happens in North Korea should remain in North Korea,” he added.
Other articles have complained that the money spent on the Peres-related events could be better spent on helping the poor. According to numerous opinion-makers, it is very unseemly for Peres to be spending this kind of money – even if much of it was donated – on an event celebrating his “vision of the future” (the Presidential Conference event is called simply “Tomorrow”), when many Israelis were suffering in the present.
Peres has not responded to these complaints in the past, but on Thursday, shortly before the closing ceremony of the Conference, he made his thoughts on the matter known. Responding to reporters' questions on the misgivings many Israelis have about the event, Peres responded that he understood the critics, but that criticism was to be expected. “We live in a democracy,” he said. “I would be surprised if there was not criticism. This is a part of democracy.” Peres then moved on to the next question.