The recent death of former President Shimon Peres of Israel took me back to 15 March 2005. I met Mr Peres that evening.
I was in Israel for Lena, delivering her testimony about Maria Kotarba to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem.
As Yad Vashem prepared to open their new museum, I made a road trip down to the Dead Sea and Eilat. On the way, I would climb Masada, the Herodian hilltop fortress complex in the Judean desert.
I collected two tickets for the Yad Vashem Dinner at the International Convention Centre. Yad Vashem had invited Lena’s friend and Holocaust survivor, Henia. I would be her guest.
My first visit to Israel had been in December 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied Kuwait that August. As coalition forces prepared to free Kuwait from his oppression, he had threatened to wipe out the ‘Zionist State’. So I thought I would visit Israel before he tried. Turns out there is always someone threatening to destroy Israel. Shimon Peres spent a large part of his life making sure no one could or would. Ensuring that, as the saying goes, “Masada shall not fall again”.
On that Tuesday morning, I left Eilat, stopping off at Mitzpe Ramon to admire the view from the top of the Ramon “crater”. Then on to Tel Aviv, bypassing the Gaza Strip border area.
Checked in to my hotel by the Old Port. Time to wash off the Negev desert and smarten myself up for the dinner. Collected Henia from her apartment, drove up to Jerusalem and found our parking place beneath the Convention Centre.
Henia knew everyone at the dinner. So many friends from Poland and France. So many introductions and explanations why I was her guest. Telling of Lena’s search to recognise Maria, her rescuer. And we sat at one of the top tables, front row centre. Close to Peres.
Peres was the after-dinner speaker. He spoke slowly and eloquently in English about the need to develop the Galilee and Negev regions of Israel. This was just before that summer’s planned Gaza Disengagement. Peres was thinking ahead to the post-Oslo Accords two-state solution. Take the pressure off the West Bank: Judea and Samaria.
After his speech, Peres held court at his table. Someone introduced me to him. We discussed Lena’s search and he wished us both well.
That evening in March 2005 seems such a long-time ago now. Israel did indeed disengage from Gaza that summer. Hamas seized control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority. Militants fired rockets from Gaza into Israel. Israel took steps to defend its citizens. The endless cycle of violence continues.
Secure peace for all, that Peres strove for, seems as elusive as ever.