One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.
As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.
With the hindsight that comes from looking at history from a distance, the struggle to create the state of Israel can seem as if it was a process whose outcome was inevitable. The victory of the Zionist movement was, however, won despite long odds, desperate hardships and grievous costs in blood. The men and women who battled those odds did so in the face of the conventional wisdom of their day that told them they had no chance of forcing the British Empire to make good on its promise to create a National Home for the Jews or to defeat an Arab and Muslim world determined to crush the newborn State of Israel. They needed not only courage but also an iron will and the patience to bear great suffering while never losing sight of their goal. No person embodied those attributes more than Yitzhak Shamir, the underground resistance fighter who would one day become Israel’s seventh prime minister.
Shamir, who died yesterday at the age of 96 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, left the prime minister’s office 20 years ago. In the time that has passed since then, Israel has changed greatly as its economy expanded and transformed a once poor country into an economic dynamo. It has also endured a failed peace process, fought wars and dealt with terrorist offensives as a subsequent generation of political leaders took up the mantle of power and sometimes succumbed to illusions about the country’s neighbors that never afflicted Shamir. His time in power as well as the period of the great struggles in his life seem like a very long time ago, and it is more than possible most Israelis, let alone foreign friends of the Jewish state, have largely forgotten him or regard him as merely a figure who connects the periods when it was governed by the more famous Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. But he is no mere footnote to history. The lessons of Shamir’s life and his tenure in power (he served longer as Israel’s prime minister than anyone other than David Ben-Gurion) could serve the country well today and in the future.