Shimon Peres was a gifted leader, an eloquent speaker, and a source of ideas. But most important, he was a leader who had a vision and a message, writes Itamar Rabinovich
IN 2006, a year before Shimon Peres was elected Israel’s president, Michael Bar-Zohar published the Hebrew edition of his Peres biography. It was aptly titled Like a Phoenix: by then, Peres had been active in Israeli politics and public life for 60 years.
Peres had great successes and humiliating failures — and went through several incarnations.
A pillar of Israel’s national security leadership, he subsequently became an ardent peacemaker, maintaining a love-hate relationship with an Israeli public that consistently declined to elect him prime minister, but which admired him when he did not have power.
Undeterred by adversity, Peres pushed forward, driven by ambition and a sense of mission, and aided by his talent and creativity. He was self-taught, a voracious reader and a prolific writer, a man moved and inspired every few years by a new idea: nanoscience, the human brain, Middle Eastern economic development.
He was also a visionary, sly politician, who never shook off his East European origins. When his quest for power, and for participation in policymaking, ended in 2007, he reached the pinnacle of his public career, serving as president until 2014.
He rehabilitated the presidency, succeeding an unworthy predecessor, and became popular at home, and admired abroad, as an informal elder on the international stage, a sought-after speaker, and a symbol of a peace-seeking Israel, in sharp contrast to its pugnacious prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Peres’s rich and complex political career passed through five phases. He began as an activist in the Labour Party and its youth movement, in the early 1940s. By 1946, he was sent to Europe as part of the pre-state delegation to the first post-war Zionist Congress.
He then began to work with Israel’s leading founder, David Ben-Gurion, at the ministry of defence, mostly in procurement, during Israel’s Independence War, eventually becoming the ministry’s director-general. That made him the architect of the young state’s defence doctrine. Running a sort of parallel foreign ministry, his main achievement was a close alliance and strong security cooperation — including with respect to nuclear technology — with France.
In 1959, Peres became a full-time politician, supporting Ben-Gurion in his conflict with Labour’s old guard. Later, he was elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and became deputy minister of defence and subsequently a full member of the cabinet.
His career entered a new phase in 1974, when prime minister, Golda Meir, was forced to resign after the October 1973 debacle, in which Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian forces successfully crossed the Suez Canal. Peres presented his candidacy, but narrowly lost to Yitzhak Rabin. As compensation, Rabin made Peres defence minister in his government. Nonetheless, their contest in 1974 marked the start of 21 years of fierce rivalry, mitigated by cooperation.
Twice, in 1977, after Rabin was forced to resign, and in 1995-1996, after Rabin was assassinated, Peres succeeded his rival. He was also prime minister (a very good one) in a national unity government in 1984-1986; but, despite trying for 30 years, he never won his own mandate from Israeli voters for the post he coveted the most.
In 1979, Peres transformed himself into the leader of Israel’s peace camp, focusing, in the 1980s, on Jordan.
But, though he came tantalisingly close to a peace deal in 1987, the London Agreement, which he signed with King Hussein, was stillborn. In 1992, the Labour Party’s rank-and-file concluded that Peres could not win an election, and that only a centrist, like Rabin, could.
Rabin won and returned, after 15 years, to the premiership. This time, he kept the defence portfolio for himself and gave Peres the foreign ministry. Rabin was determined to manage the peace process and assigned to Peres a marginal role.
But Peres was offered by Rabin’s deputy an opportunity to champion a track-two negotiation with the PLO, in Oslo, and, with Rabin’s consent, took charge of the talks, bringing them to a successful conclusion in August, 1993.
Here was the prime example of the competition and collaboration that typified the Rabin-Peres relationship. It took Peres’s boldness and creativity to conclude the Oslo Accords; but without Rabin’s credibility and stature as a military man and security hawk, the Israeli public and political establishment would not have accepted it.
The grudging cooperation between Rabin and Peres continued until November 4, 1995, when Rabin was murdered by a right-wing extremist.
The assassin could have killed Peres, but decided that targeting Rabin was the more effective way to derail the peace process. Succeeding Rabin, Peres tried to negotiate a peace deal with Syria, on the heels of Oslo. He failed, called an early election, ran a bad campaign, and lost narrowly to Netanyahu in May, 1996.
The next 10 years were not happy for Peres. He lost the leadership of Labour to Ehud Barak, joined Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima party and his government, and was criticised by the Israeli right, who blamed him for the Oslo Accords.
Peres began to play down the Nobel Peace Prize that he had shared with Yasser Arafat and Rabin after Oslo. The discrepancy between his stature on the international stage and his position in Israeli politics was glaringly apparent, but disappeared when he became president, in 2007.
Peres was an experienced, gifted leader, an eloquent speaker, and a source of ideas. But perhaps, most important, he was an Israeli leader who had a vision and a message.
This was the secret of his international stature: people expect the leader of Israel, the man from Jerusalem, to be that visionary figure. When the country’s political leadership does not meet that expectation, a leader like Peres assumes the role — and gains the glory.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, is president of The Israel Institute (DC and Tel Aviv) and is a senior scholar at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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