05/18/2012 08:28 EDT | Updated 07/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Shimon Peres: The Man Who's Seen It All

In old age, Shimon Peres is more dove-like than hawkish. But when he spoke in Toronto, in early May to a sold-out crowd, we were in the presence of greatness. There was no question he would not answer. Little wonder why, he's one of the few to have seen it all in the Middle East.

Apart from photographers and media, I felt as if I was the only non-Jew among the 3,500 sellout crowd that attended the Sony Centre in Toronto in early May to see, hear and acclaim Israel's President Shimon Peres.

As the world's oldest head of state (age 88), Peres has been both a witness of, and participant in, the momentous decisions that have shaped the Middle East for 60 years.

Like the majority of the audience in what I still view as the O'Keefe Centre, one could feel that he was truly unique, and we in the audience hung on to his answers to questions from on stage, though we knew he was too experienced to say anything controversial or newsworthy.

We were in the presence of greatness.

Five days in Canada, and then to the U.S. to raise money for the United Jewish Appeal, one wondered if Peres' visit might also have been designed to shore up support for Israel in the troubled times that lie ahead.

While there was no question he wouldn't answer -- and interrogator David Frum asked all the hard ones -- Peres was inclined to be optimistic that reason and peace would triumph in relations with Iran, which he saw as a "menace" but hopefully, not a cause for war.

Half facetiously, he quipped that through centuries of being persecuted, Jews had to rely on their intelligence to survive, and "intelligence has become part of their DNA." He noted that of the lawyers who have won the Nobel Prize, "25 per cent were Jews."

He seemed to think, or implied, that America and economic sanctions might still dissuade Iran from continuing its perilous course to obtain, or make, nuclear weapons.

There is no one on the world stage today with the experience of Peres whose family moved to Palestine from Poland in 1932 when he was nine. In Israel's war of independence (1948), young Peres joined Haganah, helped procure weapons for what was to become the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), and became head of naval services and director-general of defence.

Since being elected to the Knesset in 1959, he has been prime minister twice, and at various times held something like a dozen cabinet posts, including defence and foreign affairs. A protégé of David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, you name it, and Peres has done it -- including being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

Over the years, Peres may have mellowed somewhat (one can't be sure), and has evolved from hawkish politics to a dovish approach today. As years pass and experiences pile up, most of us change or modify our views. As a journalist who was covering the Middle East when Peres first broke into politics, I note changes in my own outlook.

I doubt there are many in journalism who've been at it longer than I have. I first began getting Middle East assignments after the 1956 Suez War, when Shimon Peres was in the middle of everything as director-general of Israeli Defence.

In those days, I was more sympathetic to Palestinians, feeling that the UN was unjustified in taking land from one people and giving it to other people who'd endured horrors, and wanted a national state and homeland.

In those days I covered violence and crises in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Algeria (never Israel), and interviewed the likes of Lebanon's Camille Chamoun, Iraq's Brigadier Abdul Karim Kasem, Jordan's King Hussein, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the first PLO leader, Ahmed Shuqueri.

As a reporter, I remember arguing with Toronto Telegram publisher John Bassett (an ardent Zionist) after the 1967 war which I covered from Cairo, that peace and security might be possible for Israel if it negotiated a return of the captured West Bank to Jordan.

Bassett indignantly rejected the idea, and the Tely wouldn't publish such views.

My views have evolved since then. While I agree the UN was unjustified in seizing Palestinian land in the first place, there is also a statute of limitations on resentment.

Few Palestinian are alive who pre-date the State of Israel. And since when if a country attacks another country, does the attacked country have to return land it took from the attacker? Especially if it threatens their security?

Israel has returned the Golan Heights to Syria, and has withdrawn from Gaza, but the West Bank is deemed vital for Israeli security. And the Palestinian leadership has rejected every compromise, and overture Israel has made. The profession of many Palestinians is being refugees. Generations of professional refugees feeding on sympathy and welfare,

So Palestinians should suck it up. Name one country that historically has never been taken over by another country? There isn't one. But life adapts and goes on.

Realistically, there is nothing Israel can do to appease its enemies.

In old age, Shimon Peres is more dove-like than hawkish. His visit to North America coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming a government of "national unity" that effectively clears the decks, and enables him to do whatever he feels is necessary to preserve Israel's survival.

From his trip, Peres knows that under Barack Obama the U.S. is unlikely to do anything about Iran that might jeopardize his re-election in November -- the main, and perhaps the only issue that truly concerns him.

Whatever Israel does about Iran, it will likely have to do alone -- and hope for western support and understanding later. As usual, the civilized world avoids hard choices, and invariably prefers the Neville Chamberlain "peace in our time" approach.

Peres know this. While being president of the State of Israel is largely a ceremonial role, it is also symbolic. And if anyone symbolizes what Israel is, and what Israel has endured and achieved, and who symbolizes what could be a peaceful and secure future, that person is Shimon Peres.

A man who has seen everything, done everything... and is still optimistic.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Shimon as Simon.