Column for Jewish News November 5 2021
Israeli society, when it is not dividing itself into pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps (who? yes, you remember him – the graceless former prime minister who refused to attend a public ceremony marking the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination) – was awash with chatter last week about the alleged actions of another former prime minister, Shimon Peres.
The occasion was a series of interviews given by former diplomat and Labour Knesset member Colette Avital, in which she told a Ha’aretz writer that, on two occasions, Mr Peres had behaved in an inappropriate manner towards her, after which she said she had chosen not to be alone in a room with him.
So what exactly did Ms Avital, now 81, say Mr Peres had done? She told Ha’aretz that while he was prime minister in 1984, he had tried to kiss her, but that she had pushed him away. On another occasion, she claimed, he had met her in a hotel in Paris, dressed in his pyjamas, and attempted to push her towards the bed.
Again Ms Avital resisted, and after these two incidents, she said, Mr Peres did not repeat his approaches.
Shimon Peres died five years ago and several matters remain true. First, that Ms Avital continued to work closely with him for the rest of her public career; that she said nothing about the alleged attacks during his lifetime or, indeed, in the immediate aftermath of his death; that rumour certainly swirled throughout Israel for the entirety of her career that she had only gained political preferment because she was having an affair with Mr Peres; that his wife, Sonia, refused to live with her husband when he became president, but that she had been both privately and publicly friendly with Colette Avital before that; and, lastly, that when I interviewed him at the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, about a year before his death, almost the entire support staff consisted of what I shall describe as “sweetie-birds” – a crowd of well-dressed, pretty women, some of whom looked very young.
What are we to make of Ms Avital’s claims? It ought to be pointed out that since her Ha’aretz interviews, a second woman has offered an anonymous statement claiming Mr Peres pressed her up against a wall and slipped his hand up her shirt without her consent.
A friend in Israel, when I raised the matter and asked whom it would benefit, remonstrated and said that perhaps Ms Avital had wanted to set the record straight. And, indeed, several other things are true: as Ms Avital herself has acknowledged, such inappropriate behaviour – if, indeed, it took place – has to be seen against the context of societal attitudes at the time. This was long before #MeToo – and, presumably, Ms Avital’s admitted overriding admiration for Mr Peres as a politician made her want to continue working with him. We will never know, because Mr Peres is dead and not here to defend himself.
Israeli society in many respects is Neanderthal and, indeed, only last week, the MK Elazar Stern withdrew as a candidate to head the Jewish Agency because of claims he wilfully ignored sexual harassment complaints while leading the Israel Defence Forces’ Manpower Directorate.
In a country in which serious sexual harassment finally led to the toppling of a president (Moshe Katzav), Ms Avital’s post-mortem pillorying of Shimon Peres seems peculiar to say the least. Because in the end, nothing happened. He – allegedly – tried it on and was rebuffed. Then they got on with their lives. I wonder if she thinks the fallout was worth it.