President Shimon Peres
President Shimon Peres Photo by Alex Levac
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I have long admired Shimon Peres -- who I heard speak last week in Ottawa at a reception given by the Israeli Embassy -- as a visionary. Peres sought a “new Middle East” that cynics viewed as a ploy to entrench Israeli hegemony, but that I, and many others, understood as elevating the possibility of longer term, joint gains over short-term, zero-sum thinking.

Today Shimon Peres remains eloquent on the subject of Israel’s future. The surprise Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition deal had been signed the night before, but everyday politics were absent from Peres’s speech last week.

“You know when civilization began?” Peres asked the guests gathered in the National Gallery in Ottawa. “With the invention of the mirror.” Peres was invoking a far-reaching enactment of the golden rule. Our actions have effects on others that we may not realize until we stand in their shoes.

While Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin paid the ultimate price for taking the risk for peace, it was Foreign Minister Peres, along with his deputy, Yossi Beilin, who initially pushed for a redefined relationship with the PLO in the form of the Oslo agreement. Regrettably, Oslo buckled under the weight of its own ambiguity. But the 1993 Israeli-PLO agreement still represented a tectonic shift in how Israelis viewed themselves, and their own role in trying to bring about peace.

Two events in the 1980s -- the 1982 Israel-PLO war in Lebanon and the first Palestinian Intifada beginning five years later -- were pivotal in leading Israelis to think differently about their actions, and how they might engage the Palestinians to reshape the future. No longer did Israelis view themselves solely as victims of Arab aggression; Israelis now saw their role as aggressors. And they didn’t like what they saw. Some soldiers voted with their conscience: 160 soldiers during the Lebanon War and 186 during the first Intifada chose jail over fighting in what they viewed as unjust missions.

The uprising grew “into an Intifada out of anger and outrage,” Peres told me when I interviewed him in Jerusalem in November 1999 for my book The International Self, which chronicled the story of Israel’s path to Oslo. “We didn’t have the right response” to the uprising, Peres added. “You cannot fire against children: a soldier against a child is a lost cause.”

Sadly, a new BBC poll reveals that Israel’s imaged has little improved since those days. In the court of public opinion, Israel now fares little better than some of the worst human rights aggressors on the planet.

The folks over at organizations like Honest Reporting have one explanation for Israel’s unpopularity: “the most obvious probability is that of negative or biased coverage of Israel in the media,” Simon Plosker wrote in the Times of Israel today.

But is it simply a problem of media distortion?

With the exception of the sudden embrace of the peace process in the early 1990s, Israel has unfortunately too often focused on image at the expense of actions. Israel’s top political and strategic minds are deployed for hasbara -- explaining and justifying Israeli policies to the world. But how much of Israel’s homegrown talent -- what Peres referred to that night in Ottawa as Israel’s “real resources” being “human beings” -- are being pressed into service to think seriously and creatively about how to change those policies?

Following one of the worst moments in Israeli war history, the 1982 Lebanese Christian Phalangist massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila for which the IDF supplied flares during the Lebanon War -- Israelis spoke out in force. 400,000 Israeli citizens, representing one-tenth of Israel’s Jewish population at the time, gathered in Tel Aviv on the night of September 25, 1982, to demand a national reckoning. Remarkably, Rabin and Peres both attended the rally in an official capacity. Three days earlier, Peres had told the Knesset that “righteousness, not just strength, have to guide our deeds.”

The mirror remained aloft as Israel saw itself as an aggressor against Palestinian youth in the Intifada who were being trained in the value of sumud (steadfastness) that Israeli commentator Haggai Matar, writing in 972 this week, admires.

As the sputtering peace process has ground to a halt, maybe it’s not just Israel’s image that has become tarnished, but the proverbial mirror that Peres spoke of. Settlements are built apace, checkpoints remain staffed, and in America, the Israel lobby works to restrain whatever impulses President Obama might have to push the parties together. Civilization may have begun when the mirror was invented, but we need many more hands to polish it anew.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov