Peres and Netanyahu, Israeli diplomacy’s good cop and bad cop

Israeli President Shimon Peres doubled up on positive statements about Arab leaders this afternoon, praising Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at noon and lauding Jordanian King Abdullah II at 3:30 p.m.

Today’s fare is nothing new  for Peres, who entered the largely ceremonial presidency in 2007. As president, Peres has found his niche channeling a friendly image of Israel.

That role has stood out especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ascended to power in 2009. Netanyahu has cultivated a tough-guy image in Israel when it comes to speaking on the world stage. Netanyahu is not afraid to lambast a world leader at the U.N. or to defy the Obama administration. When Netanyahu appeared on an Israeli sketch-comedy show last year, he said he wanted to be remembered as the “guardian of Israel’s security.”

So Peres the Peacemaker has at times been a stark counterpoint to Bibi-the-Cartoon-Bomb-Brandisher these past five years. While Netanyahu has talked Iran and Hamas, Peres has talked innovation and regional cooperation. Politically, he has also gone where Netanyahu wouldn’t, in particular when he posed in a “Middle East money shot” with Abbas and John Kerry two months before the latest round of peace talks even started.

Today’s statements were no exception. Peres called Abdullah to apologize for the death of a Jordanian judge, Raed Zeiter, who was shot by an Israeli soldier in an incident at the Allenby crossing last week. Netanyahu’s office expressed regret but stopped short of apologizing outright.

After the call, Peres issued a statement in which he said that the Jordanian king was ”a leader of vision, and under his leadership Jordan plays a key role in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Peres’ statement calling Abbas “a man of principle” and “a good partner” comes a day after Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said that Abbas was “not a partner for a final agreement.”

Peres will leave a complex legacy when he finishes his long political career this June. For his final chapter, though, Peres will likely be remembered as the diplomatic complement/foil to Netanyahu, the man who in 1996 unseated him as prime minister.

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.