Shimon Peres: The passing of an era
For nearly seven decades there were symbiotic relations between the man and his country
Today Israel and many others in the world are saying goodbye to the last of its political giants, who was the link between the founders of the State of Israel and the present. It is hard to write about Shimon Peres in the past tense. If there has been someone ever-present in Israeli political life, since its inception, it was him. For nearly seven decades there were symbiotic relations between the man and his country.
Both existences seem to intertwine almost inseparably. He was one of the very few people who could be a fervent Israeli patriot and a Zionist, but without a nationalist zeal; he was a man of great vision, but his feet were firmly planted on the ground. For some he was a great statesman and for others he was a relentless politician in an unstoppable quest for power.
These were only some of the qualities of this very complex man, who passed away this week. Tragically his country and people have learnt to respect and love him only toward the end of his political life, while he dedicated all his life to serve them. For many years he was on the receiving end of vile verbal abuse by political opponents and rivals.
Despite success in every ministerial position he filled, he never won an outright victory in the five election campaigns which he led his party in and his achievements were many times overlooked.
It was only when he was elected to the more symbolic role as president that Peres turned into a father figure and at last enjoyed acceptance and love from his own peopleYossi Mekelberg
When he first became a prime minister in 1984, he received a country stuck deep in the quagmire of an unnecessary and damaging war in Lebanon, and suffering from a hyperinflation of close to five hundred percent. He presided over a government that within two years withdrew from most of the territory of its northern neighbour and managed to stabilize the economy.
It did nothing to help him to win the following elections or in endearing himself with wide segments of the Israeli society. It was only when he was elected to the more symbolic role as president that he turned into a father figure and at last enjoyed acceptance and love from his own people – something he had longed for all his life since arriving to Mandatory Palestine from Poland as a teenager.
For nearly a quarter of a century he was the predominant figure associated with the 1993 Oslo Accords and with the efforts to reach peace with the Palestinians. To his very last days he believed that this was possible, even inevitable.
Dove or a hawk?
However, he was not a political dove, at least not to begin with, nor was he a hawk that turned into a dove. Both contradictory approaches lived in him with some uneasy harmony for most of his life, at times one was more dominant than the other and vice versa.
In his early political life, he held views more aligned with realpolitik, believing that Israel’s survival depended first and foremost on building its military might and searching for powerful allies. He never abandoned this view, but gradually reached the conclusion that military power may guarantee the physical survival of the Jewish state, at least in the short term, but would not provide long term security, let alone acceptance by the Arab world.
Increasingly he realized the moral and political curse of the military victory of the 1967 Six Day War. Occupied territories may have given Israel strategic depth, but also resulted in further rejection by the region. Worse, he recognised that ruling over the lives of other people and depriving them of their rights is morally wrong and irreversibly damaging to Israeli society. He turned into a moral-pragmatist.
Middle East legacy
Peres’ legacy in the Middle East remains as complex as the man was himself. For some he will be remembered for his active involvement in negotiations with France and the UK that led to the Suez Crisis of 1956; for being the force behind the Israeli nuclear program; or for enabling the settlements’ movement in its early stages in the 1970s, when he was defence minister. Moreover, he was a member of governments that pursued hawkish policies that preferred occupation over peace.
However, Peres was a reflective human being, capable of learning from his own mistakes. He also had curiosity in abundance and personal integrity, leading him to constantly search for new ideas and adapt accordingly. At the end of the day, his big dream of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians did not materialize during his life time.
This should not take away from the fact that by enabling the peace negotiations in Oslo, he played an incredible part in legitimizing talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the notion of an independent Palestinian state. In the pre-Oslo years these notions were seen as taboo and those who supported them were on the margins of the political debate, many times portrayed as traitors.
Despite the trials and tribulations since the signing of the Oslo Accords, including the Second Intifada and recent wave of violence, there is a solid majority of Israelis who are in favor of peace negotiations with the Palestinians that would lead to a two-state solution. Not a minor achievement.
This change of public perception is a lasting legacy that Shimon Peres was instrumental in bringing about and he leaves behind him for Israelis and Palestinians to translate it into a peaceful reality. After all no one in Israeli politics was a greater optimist and a believer in the human spirit than Shimon Peres.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.