The tone of many of the tributes being heard or published outside of Israel about the passing of Shimon Peres have focused almost entirely on his advocacy for peace. As a column by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen demonstrates, a lot of the honor being heaped on his reputation is intended as a criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and, implicitly, on the majority of Israeli voters who continue to reject idealistic if naïve belief that optimism about Palestinian intentions or even that of Iran should dictate the Jewish state’s policy choices. Many of those lauding Peres are telling us that, in burying Peres, Israelis are not just saying goodbye to the last of their founding fathers but to the very idea of peace.
This is wrong, not because Peres’s ideals are unworthy of praise, but because it is possible to think well of a man even if the actions for which he is most remembered were a disaster. While both Israelis and Americans are united in mourning Peres, most of the former are paying homage to him in spite of his role as the principal architect of the Oslo Peace Accords; not because of them.
As I noted yesterday, popularity came late to Peres. Recognition of his sincerity and the scope of a lifetime of service to the Jewish state eventually overcame much of the resentment he earned for advocacy of a policy that was a costly failure.
But for many Americans, not least President Obama, Peres became something of a vehicle for their critique of Israel in which its leaders and its people were compared unfavorably to the supposedly more admirable predecessors. This is a theme Obama seemed to be sounding last year in his speech at a Washington synagogue, in which he chided Israelis for not living up to their ideals. From that point of view, the Israel of the present is both too materialistic and too insensitive to the plight of its Arab neighbors to make peace. This is a notion for which Peres, who became a strong advocate of Israel’s efforts to modernize its economy, himself didn’t have much patience. But it also shows how out of touch those who continue to blame Israel for the ongoing conflict are with the reality of the Middle East and, specifically, that of a Palestinian political culture of hate that remains the obstacle to peace.
Israelis aren’t burying peace with Peres. But his passing is an apt moment to note that unrealistic notions about the Palestinians giving up their century-long war against the Jewish presence in any part of the country are no longer part of the true currency of Israeli politics. The traditional parties of the left that upheld the Oslo ideal have been rendered marginal by the two decades of Palestinian violence that killed the peace process along with the innocent victims of terrorism. The Israel of today is still a nation that hopes for peace, but it is no longer willing to take the sort of risks Peres took with Oslo. Unless and until the Palestinians show they are willing to give up terror and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, Israelis will make no more territorial withdrawals. They also know that key Arab nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia look to Israel as a potential ally against Iran and have no appetite for the creation of another terrorist state (in addition, that is, to the independent Palestinian state in all but name run by Hamas in Gaza) merely to gratify the Palestinians’ desire to continue the conflict.
Shimon Peres’ lifelong quest to make Israel a better place deserves great praise. But his memory shouldn’t be used as a cudgel with which to beat the people he served and the Netanyahu government they keep reelecting. They would have like to have lived in the “New Middle East” he dreamed of if it had been possible. But if a new generation of Israelis is no longer willing to live with illusions, that is not something those who claim to be their friends should criticize.