Ever-Optimistic Pursuer Of Peace, Shimon Peres Dies At 93
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Ever-Optimistic Pursuer Of Peace, Shimon Peres Dies At 93

A Nobel Prize-winner, his life spanned Israel’s history even as his vision of a ‘new Middle East’ remained unfulfilled.

In the years after he left the U.S. diplomatic service, Daniel Kurtzer would often spend time with Shimon Peres during his return visits to Israel.

Kurtzer, who had served as ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, said he whenever he went into Mr. Peres’ office in a pessimistic mood because of recent developments in the Middle East peace process he would always leave more optimistic.

Mr. Peres, Kurtzer said, would point to some sign of light in what appeared to be total darkness and boost his spirits. Never stop looking for a way to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, was Mr. Peres’ message. “You have to keep trying.”

“There were many occasions like that,” Kurtzer said. “He kept pumping me up.”

Kurtzer, who now serves as the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University, said that attitude typified the career and outlook of Mr. Peres, who died Sept. 27 at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan. He was 93.

Mr. Peres had been rushed to the hospital two weeks ago after suffering a serious stroke. He initially was conscious and in stable condition, but after he deteriorated his physicians put him in an induced coma and on a respirator in order to conduct further tests,

He had been hospitalized in January with an arrhythmia shortly after suffering a light heart attack, and underwent catheterization.

Shimon Peres (C), the Israeli Foreign Minister at the time, stands alongside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (L), and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin, displaying their Nobel Peace Prizes on December 10, 1994 in Oslo, Norway. Getty Images

Mr. Peres, who during nearly 70 years of public life in Israel was the country’s president, prime minister and defense minister and foreign minister, and a longtime Knesset member, made his legacy as the instigator of the behind-the-scenes negotiating process that culminated in the historic 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, for which he shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Yasir Arafat. As a sometimes-enigmatic figure, he wielded an indisputable influence on Israel’s formative and subsequent decades.

A native of Poland, Mr. Peres became a leader in his adopted homeland. While still in his 20s, he became a close aide to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and spent the end of his life as Israel’s elder statesman. A lifelong member of Israel’s secular Labor and Kadima parties, he often spoke of his personal religious faith. A man of supreme self-confidence that appeared to border on arrogance, he would invite Lone Soldiers to his family Passover seders and exhibit unanticipated warmth with visitors’ children and grandchildren; while he did join the pre-state Haganah, he was one of the few Israeli men of his generation who did not serve in the Israeli Army, but he later earned the reputation as Israel’s “Mr. Security,” building up the country’s military structure and nuclear arsenal; a supporter of Israel’s West Bank settlements, he championed the peace process that left the settlements’ future in doubt: an outspoken hawk early in his career, he became the most prominent proponent of a two-state solution and of a diplomatic accommodation with the Palestinians; a man who found little affection at first among many Israelis and lost several elections as prime minister, he was, at his death, a respected, if not beloved, individual.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reads on September 2, 1975 in Jerusalem the Sinai Interim Agreement, also known as the Sinai II Agreement, diplomatic agreement signed by Egypt and Israel as Israeli Defence Minister Shimon Peres (R) and US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger look on. Getty Images

Mr. Peres arguably achieved more success as a hawk than as a dove – Israeli remains a militarily strong nation; his vision of a new Middle East, a Levant version of the Far East with the capabilities of combining Jewish and Arab strengths into an economic engine, is still unfulfilled.

Mr. Peres was, Kurtzer said, possibly “the most influential person” in Israel’s years of statehood. “He was a true-blue Zionist. There was never any question in his mind that what he was doing was good for Israel and the Jewish people.”

“He made a transition in his views. This was a man with vision, a man who did stuff. He was always forward looking,” Kurtzer told The Jewish Week. “He always believed that you go out and do things. You don’t follow. He was always a leader. He didn’t often have a lot of followers.”

“For me,” Mr. Peres liked to say, “dreaming is simply being pragmatic.”
Mr. Peres was “a wise man … able to shift his position when he [came] to the conclusion that such a change [was] consistent with the interests of the State of Israel,” Yossi Beilin, a longtime Peres aide, wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014.

A wide variety of experts on Israeli’s political history, including people there and in the United States, this week praised Mr. Peres’ legacy.

Mr. Peres at times during his career was compared to the late Abba Eban, the foreign minister and ambassador to both the U.S. and United Nations, who was a popular figure in the English-speaking diaspora but wielded less political influence back in Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (R) smoking at Ben Gurion airport before Peres's departure for Bonn on July 8, 1975. Getty Images

“He went beyond Abba Eban,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations. “Abba Eban was not influential at all in Israeli politics, while Peres was part of the Israeli security establishment,” said Efraim Inbar, professor in political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “He was a good politician – he knew the ropes. He knew how the system works.”

Mr. Peres’ influence increased in many circles after his apparent political change of heart, and especially after he assumed the largely figurehead presidency in 2007 and felt less constrained to reflect a political party line. “He was free to speak his mind,” Beilin said.

Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniew, Poland (now Vishnyeva, Belarus), Mr. Peres immigrated with his family to Palestine at 11. At four, he said, he had received a blessing from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the scholar and author popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim.

“Had I not left [Poland] when I did,” Mr. Peres wrote in his 1995 political memoir, “The New Middle East” (Henry Holt), “my fate would have been little different from that of the Jews who were buried in mass graves or sent to their death in gas chambers.”

In Palestine, Mr. Peres lived in Tel Aviv and on Kibbutz Geva. He was a founder of Kibbutz Alumot and was elected secretary of the Hanoar Haoved Labor Zionist youth movement.
By 20, he came to the attention of Ben-Gurion, then leader of the Mapai party, who appointed Mr. Peres head of the Israeli Navy and director of the Defense Ministry’s delegation in the U.S. in the early 1950s; by 1952, Mr. Peres was deputy director-general of the Defense Ministry; the next year he became director-general, the youngest person to hold that position. As director general he coordinated Israeli arms purchases, established the Dimona nuclear reactor and electronic aircraft industry, and improved Israel’s relations with France, a crucial ally of Israel until the 1960s.

Israeli President Shimon Peres shake hands with Pope Francis during a private audience in the pontiff's library on April 30, 2013 at the Vatican. Getty Images

Elected to the Knesset in 1959, Mr. Peres served as deputy defense minister; during his career he led a succession of ministries, including Immigrant Absorption, Finance, Transportation and Communications, and Information. Later he became Defense Minister and Foreign Minister, and Prime Minister or interim Prime Minister four times, once after the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

While serving as Prime Minister after Rabin’s death, Mr. Peres declined to call immediately for new elections, which he would have been favored to win. “He didn’t want to ride into office on the coattails of an assassinated [leader],” preferring to establish his own record as prime minister, Kurtzer said. “In a sense, that’s a leader.”

Mr. Peres called new elections in 1996, losing closely to Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Peres’ personae had shifted from hawk to dove. With a growing demographic threat posed by Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza (before Israeli relinquished Gaza in 2005), and a mounting military threat posed by radical Moslems on Israel’s borders, Mr. Peres “made a transition in his views,” sending the inevitability of reaching a political accommodation with the Palestinians, Kurtzer said. “He saw it before most people.”

Mr. Peres would explain that he called for “a solution of two national states – a Jewish state, Israel; an Arab state, Palestine. The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become or closest friends.”

Hoenlein said, “I don’t think there was any sudden change. It’s not true that he became a dove,” someone who put the demands of a peace treaty before Israel’s own interests. He was still strong on the issues of defense and security.”

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Israeli President Shimon Peres during a dinner in his honor in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, on June 13, 2012. Getty Images

“He was not a peacenik,” a member of Israel’s far left, Beilin said.

“Many of my friends, and even more of my opponents, have asked how my concern for the armed defense of Israel … has been supplanted by fervent dedication to the peace process,” Mr. Peres wrote in his 1985 memoirs. “As far as I can tell, it was not I who shifted from the traditional concept of national defense, which depends mainly on military and weapons systems, to the modern concept, which is of necessity based on political accords, and embraces international security and economic considerations. Rather, the world has changed. And the process of change compels us to replace our outdated concepts with an approach tailored to the new reality.

“To achieve peace, the basic problems of the Middle East need to be approached realistically,” Mr. Peres wrote. “First and foremost, we must all acknowledge the futility of war: the Arabs cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield; Israel cannot dictate the conditions for peace to the Arabs.

“There is no sense in preserving the status quo,” he wrote – “Not for Israel, not for the Palestinians.”

These words summarize Mr. Peres’ vision of what he called the “new Middle East.”

“Every investment in the Middle East will prove itself and yield a return, whether in the form of stable oil prices or through a savings in military expenditures,” Mr. Peres wrote. “The new Middle East, economically developed and socially and politically stable, will cost the world far less than would a violent political confrontation, in which other nations would have to intervene.”

“When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist,” he liked to say.

“No negotiations is not a possibility,” he said in a 2012 interview with Germany’s Spiegel magazine. “We have to negotiate. The real problem is how to start negotiations.”

“‘His main fault was adopting a certain naiveté concerning the Palestinians and the peace process.” Mr. Peres incorrectly judged Arafat as a “partner for peace [that] he never was,” Inbar said.

Mr. Peres gained the reputation of a political leader who mastered the details of every position he held – such as military arms while serving in Israel’s defense establishment, or economics while serving as Finance Minister. Later, in his senior years, he pushed Israel’s embrace of the emerging high-tech, Internet-based society.

“Years before Israel became the ‘Startup Nation,’ he was talking about it,” Kurtzer said “The Middle East can apply the lessons of both the computer revolution and the rise of Asian economic power,” Mr. Peres wrote in 1985. “To do this, its leaders must abandon the conflicts of yesterday and invest in education instead of the arms race.”

“Never before had an Israeli prime minister become so immersed in economic policy making,” Samuel Lewis, former US ambassador to Israel, wrote in Foreign Affairs journal in 1987. “No economist, Peres nevertheless mastered the technical issues sufficiently” to win government support for his economic proposals.

Mr. Peres, in an interview with Germany’s Speigel newsmagazine, attributed his political changes and his optimism to his “experience.”

“That’s the difference between young and old,” he told Spiegel. “I am old. I can tell you, reality affects leaders more than any leader affects reality.”

Hoenlein attributed part of Mr. Peres’ success to his willingness to accept other people’s opinion and criticism. “He was not adverse to listening to advice.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Presidential Palace on August 1, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. Getty Images

Hoenlein tells of a speech to Jewish leaders that Mr. Peres, as foreign minister in a unity government, gave in New York City in April 1987 after signing a joint agreement in London with Jordan’s King Hussein for an international peace conference that would include the five standing members of the UN Security Council. Under terms of the agreement, Israel would negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, on the future of control of the West Bank.

“He did a very poor job in presenting it,” Hoenlein said – the Jewish leaders remained unconvinced of the proposal’s viability.

After the speech, Mr. Peres invited Hoenlein to his hotel room here and showed Hoenlein the proposed agreement. “I want you to read the agreement,” Mr. Peres said.

After reading the document, Hoenlein told Mr. Peres, “This is a good deal – it doesn’t seem to be the same thing you presented downstairs.”

Mr. Peres accepted the critique and improved his presentation in subsequent meetings with American Jewish leaders, gaining their support, Hoenlein said; the agreement did not receive the government’s approval; later that year the first Intifada broke out, and the next year Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank.

An archive portrait taken of Shimon Peres, Israeli Labor Party at the time, take in Paris, January 22, 1981. Getty Images

Aware that he was not popular among many Israelis, Mr. Peres made an effort to change his reputation, Inbar said. “Toward the end of his life he had a big thirst to be liked,” to change his public reputation as a dishonest politician.”

As President and in the two years after his term ended, much of the enmity towards Mr. Peres seemed to have ebbed, Inbar said. “Longevity was a factor. The same thing happened to Sharon.” That allusion is to the late Ariel Sharon, a former general with the nickname of “the Bulldozer” whose blustery image softened as he aged and eventually died of a stroke that left him in a vegetative state for eight years.

As president, Mr. Peres became a consensus figure, Kurtzer said. “He spoke to all Israelis.”
Beilin said he went to Mr. Peres’ office the morning after Mr. Peres’ electoral defeat to Netanyahu in 1996.

“I did not know what to say,” Beilin said – he expected to find Mr. Peres in a distant, morose.
When Beilin entered his boss’ office, Mr. Peres was on the phone with his wife, Sonia. The prime minister was discussing that day’s lunch, Beilin said “Chicken is fine,” he heard Mr. Peres say. Mr. Peres exhibited no sign that he had lost an election a few hours before, and had again experienced political rejection at the hands of the Israeli public, Beilin said – in the subsequent two decades, Mr. Peres remained active in politics, advocating his vision of a New Middle East and burnishing his reputation.

“For him, it was another day,” Belin said – an election loss “was not the end of the world. He never entered into depression. He never gave up.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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