One day in 1975, Shimon Peres, then defense minister, flew to Washington for a routine meeting with his U.S. counterpart, James Schlesinger. Everything will go as usual, Peres figured: Schlesinger will hear him out and he will listen to what the American has to say, and they will issue a joint statement afterward. Like always.
But this time things did not work out that way: Schlesinger asked everyone present to leave the room so he could speak with Peres in private. "I'd like to talk to you about something that's been really bothering me," Schlesinger said.
Peres grew anxious: "There were maybe 20 generals and admirals there," he told me this week, "and everyone was told to leave. I thought, God knows what's happened."
"My dear Shimon," Schlesinger said when they were alone, "tell me in all honesty, do you think Theodor Herzl was right in wanting to create a Jewish state?"
Peres was so taken aback that he did not know what to say, and recited the standard Zionist lecture that Israeli politicians deliver in America. Today, he says, he would have answered simply: "Yes, Herzl was right, a thousand times right!"
Some 94 years after Herzl's death, in 1998, Peres "shares" the anecdote about Schlesinger with the ghost of the Zionist visionary. The "conversation" between Peres and Herzl takes place in a book Peres wrote describing a fantasy trip around the country, during which he shows the father of Zionism its modern-day accomplishments.
"It is a true story," Peres tells Herzl, adding: "Schlesinger is a brilliant man." Perhaps he paused slightly and lowered his voice a tad then as he did in the conversation with me this week, when revealing to Herzl: Schlesinger's socks didn't match - one was white and one black.
The idea for this book was conceived by the French newspaper Le Monde. Its staff commissioned Peres to write an article in honor of Israel's 50th Independence Day, and were so impressed that they suggested that Peres expand it into a book: "Le Voyage imaginaire: avec Theodor Herzl en Israel." (An English edition, "The Imaginary Voyage: With Theodor Herzl in Israel," was published in 1999 by Arcade Publishing.) The Hebrew edition ("Im Herzl l'eretz hadashah") was published by Zmora Bitan about a year after the French original, and failed to make the best-seller list; indeed, it seems that not many know of its existence.
The tour with the visionary of the state leads Peres to conclude that the Israeli success story greatly exceeds what Herzl had dreamed. In this respect Herzl's dream was a small one, he told me this week, positively tiny. For his part, Herzl comes to the conclusion that Israelis need to improve their manners. This is a likable book, sometimes brilliant - much like the 86-year-old president himself.
Peres is more popular today than ever, and is reveling for the first time in what he dreamed of having since he entered politics 60 years ago: the love of his people. He is in good spirits, he studies the past and thinks a great deal about the future. He is an incurable optimist.
I told the president that the most surprising thing in his book - which, from a Zionist perspective, is also rather embarrassing - is that his first meeting with Herzl takes place at Ben-Gurion International Airport: The father of the Zionist idea does not live in Israel. Instead, he arrives as a tourist, and after a few days he goes home, to who knows where, perhaps Paris. He therefore comes across in Peres' book as a post-Zionist par excellence; in the eyes of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion he is not a Zionist at all.
In the book, Ben-Gurion hosts Herzl by his graveside in Sde Boker, to which Herzl and Peres come by helicopter.
"The people who watched us stride across to the site rubbed their eyes in amazement at the sight of this elegantly attired man, boasting a thick black beard," Peres writes. Suddenly they see in the distance a man dressed in a khaki outfit, and evidently the man whose grave they are visiting has been resurrected and is walking toward them.
"Before I had time to say a word to Herzl regarding the person [who had appeared so suddenly, he] already approached him, arm outstretched, and said, 'Welcome to the Negev,'" Peres writes, "I whispered hurriedly in Herzl's ear that this was the legendary Ben-Gurion. He queried in a whisper, 'Why is he dressed in these khaki clothes that have not even been ironed?' I failed to reply, for David Ben-Gurion declared, 'I am aware that you are the founder of Zionism, but we must define Zionism.'" Anyone who does not move to Israel is not a Zionist, the state's first prime minister told Herzl.
The Zionist prediction that a country was needed to combat anti-Semitism might have come true during the Holocaust, I told Peres, but today there is nothing to prevent Jews from living as citizens with equal rights anywhere in the world. The president said he will remain a Zionist so long as there is even one Jew living "abroad," or in "the Diaspora," as he terms it in his book.
But since reality changes faster than ideological terminology, Peres went on, he can imagine a third possibility: people living part-time in Israel and part-time elsewhere. They can still be termed Zionist if they are Israeli citizens and they are based here, he said. He supposes that these people would remain a minority, but they could still wield influence. I asked him what sort of loyalty they would have, and Peres replied that it would be a loyalty to Jewish ethical values.
It is an interesting approach, particularly coming from the mouth of the president of Israel. More than David Ben-Gurion's Zionism, it reminds me of the good life enjoyed Nahum Goldman, the former president of the World Zionist Organization - who held five additional passports beside his Israeli one.
Arthur Koestler, George Steiner, and others wrote things along the lines of Peres' views of Zionists of the future.
Back to the book, while returning to Ben-Gurion Airport, Herzl's chopper passes wondrously over his own grave, on the mountain that bears his name and also the military cemetery.
"I turned to Herzl and said that the tombstone of the man of vision was placed alongside the tombstones of the young fallen soldiers, for were it not for their courage and personal sacrifice, this vision would never have turned to reality," Peres writes. "Tears streamed down Herzl's cheeks."
The book goes on to say that the father of Zionism was troubled by something: Seeing as both he and Ben-Gurion were no longer among the living - were there any visionaries to take their places? Peres reassures him that the Israelis are fortunate: Herzl's vision was of a people, Ben-Gurion's vision was of a state, and, "As a result, we have a people, and we have a state. Their vision is peace."
Ben-Gurion told Peres to take Herzl to visit the town of Dimona, and added with a wink that Peres might also agree to show Herzl something rather secret that is near the town. In his youth Peres believed that the Dimona facility in question would bring peace. It failed to prevent a succession of wars, I tell him, but he said he is convinced that Dimona was central among the considerations that led Egypt to make peace with Israel.
Yes, he knows that most Israelis today do not believe in the possibility of achieving peace. It has no effect on him. He is certain there will be peace.
One rather curious segment in his book prompted me to share a thought with him: that Israel's founding fathers might have nurtured the mere illusion of peace as a way to avoid contending with the real and inescapable choice of either Zionism or peace. In the process, they were following in the footsteps of Herzl himself. Furthermore, among the heroes of his utopian novel "Altneuland" is an Arab named Reschid Bey, who promotes Zionism willingly because the enterprise it supports will cause land prices to go up.
"To create Reschid Bey, Herzl did not rely purely on his imagination. Such a character existed in the person of Youssef Diya al-Khalidi," Peres writes. Khalidi was the mayor of Jerusalem who, in 1899, sent Herzl a letter, via the chief rabbi of France, saying the Zionist idea is "natural, beautiful and right," according to Peres.
Peres therefore praised Khalidi's humanity and goodwill. The impression received is that Khalidi was one of Zionism's friends. The truth, however, is that he was one of its first enemies.
Further on in his letter to Herzl, Khalidi warned him that realizing Zionism in Palestine would lead to war. "Zionism, in its present geographic meaning, would therefore necessarily have to cease," he determined, and suggested that the Jews seek another place in which to build their state. The universe is large and much of it is uninhabited, he wrote, ending with the words: "For the sake of God, leave Palestine in peace."
This was the first time Peres had heard all this, he told me this week. But his faith in peace is unshakable. In his book, he did not take Herzl to visit the settlements, nor the Palestinian refugee camps - two symbols of the failings of Zionism. Peres is one of the fathers of those settlements, and shares responsibility for the fiasco of refugee rehabilitation.
Accounts to settle
Peres does not like to be reminded of his role in the settlements. Until the Likud party came to power, there were a total of 22 of them, inhabited by maybe 4,000 settlers, he noted. The truth is that the settlements blossomed under left-wing governments as well, including his own. Peres explained to Herzl that the settlers are "not so much setting forth to conquer new territories as turning their backs on Israeli society - that society that Herzl so ardently desired and dreamed of."
Peres was involved in the attempt to rehabilitate the Arab refugees, but claims those efforts were sabotaged by the Arabs themselves. This is not accurate: Plans to rehabilitate the refugees in the West Bank, immediately after the Six-Day War, were torpedoed mainly because ministers Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon earmarked the West Bank for Jewish settlement.
As president, Peres does not say for the record what he believes should happen with the settlers, or who should have control over Jerusalem, but if he were to take a tour with Herzl nowadays, he would assure him that the Oslo process is not dead.
Moreover, in his opinion, it is easier today than in the past to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Today even Likud says that there will be a Palestinian state, and it won't be on the moon, Peres explained. The upshot is that the argument boils down to maybe 2-3 percent of the territory. This is the whole problem? In general, he went on, most of the wars in the world broke out because of territorial disputes. The battle was on the ground.
Today the ground isn't what counts, he continued. What counts is ability. There was a farmer here from Ethiopia. They have 4 million cows; we have 100,000. Nevertheless, we have more milk, because we transformed agriculture from something that depends on land into something that depends on science.
So there is no room for war any longer. Science does not have borders, an army does not come into being to conquer wisdom, customs agents can't check what's going on inside a scientist's head. Even a small place can be a great country.
Price of Zionism
In his book, Peres takes Herzl to the Knesset and tries to explain to him the idiosyncrasies of Israeli democracy. Peres recalls that one of the heroes in "Altneuland" suggests extending the principles of Zionism to the blacks in America and giving them independence in Africa. "It pleases me that in his utopian world, Herzl thinks about Africa," Peres writes.
This segment in his book prompts me to ask whether the State of Israel - predicated on the assumption that minorities can never be granted equal rights - is actually capable of granting equal rights to the minorities living in its own territory.
Peres answered that democracy, too, changes. It is no longer based on equal rights, but rather on the equal right of people to be different. And so we were left to discuss the price of Zionism - in other words, the misery it has caused the Palestinians. I asked whether Herzl ought to apologize to the Palestinians.
No, Peres replied: Herzl lived in his imagination. He dreamed a dream. You're allowed to fantasize. You're allowed to dream. It is not a crime. You are even allowed to desire - and it is not sexual harassment.
So I ask the president whether the government ought to apologize. He answered that Zionism did justice to the Jewish people. This nation has been the most trampled upon by humanity, including by the Muslims. And even if as a result of that justice an injustice was created for the other side - it is still not equivalent.
What we did, we did not do with intention of malice, he explained. I do not think there was anyone among the founders of the settlements and among the founders of Zionism who truly wanted to hurt the Arabs. Everything was done in good faith. The Arabs owe us an apology. We could have been living in peace. The Arabs have 24 countries, millions of kilometers of land, boundless amounts of oil. They have everything in abundance. So what misery are you talking about?
In preparation for meeting the visionary of the state in the book, Peres is drawn to Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, the city in which he lived for most of his life and which is the capital of Zionist culture. Later, he even takes Herzl to the famous Kassit cafe on Dizengoff Street.
I told Peres about a survey conducted by the map company Mapa, according to which Israel has more streets named after Jabotinsky than Herzl. Well, said Peres, that is a mistake.
In Rishon Letzion there is a street named for Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. That city also has streets named for Elie Wiesel, Henry Kissinger and others. The street named after Yitzhak Rabin is bigger than Peres Street; Arafat did not get a street at all.
Before bidding farewell to Herzl, Peres reminded him of a sentence that is attributed to Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, who managed to make Herzl's life miserable: "You don't have to be crazy to be a Zionist, but it certainly helps."
Peres and I wondered whether Herzl would have opened up the President's Residence to television entertainer Eli Yatzpan and permitted him to run riot there, as Peres recently did with great charm and heartwarming humor. Perhaps he would. After all, Herzl was not only a journalist, but also a playwright. But if Herzl were to allow such a thing, Peres quipped, Haaretz would have dissed him.
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