The death of Shimon Peres yesterday at the age of 93 is a moment to take stock not only of one of the most remarkable Jewish figures of the last hundred years but of the history of the state of Israel, which he served for his entire adult life. As a longtime aide to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who then went on to serve in just about every significant position of authority in the state, Peres’s story is very much that of his nation. And it is in that context, rather than solely through the prism of some of the policy choices he advocated, that his enormous contributions to Israel must be judged.
As one of Ben Gurion’s “boys,” it was Peres more than any other person, in his capacity as the director general of the Defense Ministry, who helped build Israel’s security infrastructure and its defense industry. His diplomacy was key to the alliance Israel struck with France in this period. That not only led to the Suez Campaign of 1956 (a great success for Israel even if it was a disaster for Britain and France), Israel’s acquisition of its first generation of sophisticated weaponry, and the birth of its nuclear program. He went on to follow his boss out of government and into opposition but he resurfaced as a leader of the Labor Party and served in a variety of posts, including minister of defense and two stints as prime minister despite never winning a national election in his own right.
But it is not for his role as the organizer of Israel’s defense in an era when its security hung by a thread that he is best remembered. Rather, his political legacy rests more on his actions as foreign minister, when he served in the government of his longtime bitter rival Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s. Peres was the driving force behind the decision to reach out to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to try and end the conflict with the Arabs that had begun long before Israel’s founding. Though he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and the PLO’s Yasir Arafat, he was the one who not only pushed hardest for the agreement that would be known as the Oslo Peace Accords but was also the one who actually believed in what they were doing.
Peres liked to describe himself as more of a philosopher than a politician. This label explained his devotion to the idea that a land-for-peace deal could end decades of warfare in the face of facts that persuaded more sober figures it was bound to fail. His goal was not so much a security agreement as the creation what he hopefully described as a “New Middle East”—the title of the book he wrote about his objectives published in the midst of the post-Oslo euphoria in 1994—in which the dangerous neighborhood in which the Jewish state dwelled would be transformed into a Benelux on the Mediterranean.
The problem was that his negotiating partner, Arafat, did not share his noble goals. The veteran terrorist used the Palestinian Authority Oslo created to set in motion the two decades of bloodshed and conflict that followed Peres’s moment of glory on the White House Lawn in September 1993. Peres’s belief in the necessity of peace largely blinded him to the risks he was taking. When asked about this, as I did once, he likened the fears about Oslo to an airline passenger looking at the fine print on his ticket that warned about the possibility of a crash. He believed the people of Israel should trust their pilot and not be distracted by unreasonable worries. But unfortunately, faith in Arafat’s good intentions was rewarded with renewed terror offensives, not the peace for which he and the people of Israel dreamed. The Jewish state ultimately paid a heavy price in blood for the crash he had engineered.
That terrible miscalculation might have defined Peres and, for many of his old political foes on the right, it still does. But the curious thing about Peres was that he was able to transcend his mid-career disasters just as he had his earlier work as one of the nation’s most hawkish ministers. After decades during which he was branded as the nation’s preeminent political trickster (a label placed on him by Rabin rather than his Likud foes) and a perennial political loser (he led the Labor Party to defeat four times as well as one tie during a period that stretched from 1977 to 1996), he eventually became its most beloved elder statesman.
How did that happen?
Part of it is the result of his sheer longevity. By the turn of the 21st century, Peres was one of the last of the founding generation of Israeli leaders to still take an active part in the country’s affairs. A lifetime of public service, even if some of it was unsuccessful, brings with it a certain authority. Eventually, the controversies, no matter how bitter, become less important than the fact this was a man whose biography was inseparable from the most important mileposts of his nation’s history.
Many Israelis also came to see that his unsavory political reputation wasn’t entirely deserved. A witty, garrulous, urbane and cultured man (he was a delight to interview) who had been born in Poland, Peres was the opposite of the blunt to the point of rudeness stereotypical sabra—native-born Israeli—Rabin had epitomized. The assumption that the latter must be the one who was always more truthful had more to do with cultural bias than anything else.
Perhaps also many Israelis, including some who were not part of his natural constituency on the left, eventually came to understand that although Oslo was a disaster, his advocacy for it was completely sincere. They may have viewed his “New Middle East” dreams as dangerous fantasies, but they credited him as a philosopher with high ideals that stood for something that might have been true in a better world with less barbarous foes.
One needn’t have applauded all of his ideas to understand that few people have served a democratic nation as long and as faithfully as Shimon Peres served Israel. He and the other giants who helped the Jewish state survive and thrive—a group that includes Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Yitzhak Shamir—worked miracles. Modern Israel would not have been possible without him. May his memory be for a blessing.