Peres' Astonishing Resilience in the Face of Political Setbacks

The late president never knew the joy of a clean, complete political victory that would allow him to actualize his vision; as long as he lived and breathed politics, he was rejected by the Israeli public. In his passing, Peres has finally been granted the esteem and gratitude he always craved.

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An illustration of Shimon Peres across the years.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

Shimon Peres received a rare gift: He was eulogized twice. The first time was after the stroke he suffered over two weeks ago, the second is now, after his death. If he had managed, miraculously, to recover from the stroke, he’d have been able to read the tens of thousands of words that were written and spoken about him, and perhaps – only perhaps – he would have rested assured that the love and esteem and gratitude he always craved, and always lacked, were finally his.

Despite all the positions he held, the awards and decorations and medals he received, and the honor and praise that were heaped upon him with infinite generosity in every possible corner of the world and by every leader and intellectual, every entrepreneur and innovator, Peres always projected something sour, bitter, a lack of satisfaction.

It wasn’t necessarily the “peace,” which became increasingly unattainable. It was something deeper in his personality, in his inner being. Something that even people who knew him well and close-up – “Peresologues” – weren’t able to decipher entirely.

Even when it seemed that he had already achieved everything that a mortal is capable of aspiring to and dreaming about, he never let up for a moment in his feverish race for something more. The missed opportunities, the losses, the electoral defeats, the huge doses of scorn and disdain that were his lot during decades of wallowing in the fetid political mire – all were branded on his flesh. He never got over this. Even after seven years of great conciliation with the public, as an acclaimed and beloved president, Peres felt he was still owed something.

In a certain sense, he was right. Few may recall that as a young man he established Israel’s military industries and the nuclear reactor; that he organized planes and weapons and ammunition in France on the eve of the War of Independence that saved the fledgling Jewish state from extinction; that he, as prime minister of the first unity government, from 1984 to 1986, spearheaded (with Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai) the economic stability plan that extricated Israel from an annual inflation rate of 400 percent; and that he (with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin) removed the Israel Defense Forces from deep inside Lebanon.

There are some who maintain that his role – together with top brass in the IDF and the security branches – in blocking a possible attack on Iran, is of no less importance. Only history will judge that.

The eulogizers, as is their wont, have dredged up his series of achievements from the recesses of collective oblivion and flooded the public consciousness with them. Of all things, the “striving for peace,” which in recent decades became Peres’ trademark and middle name, and earned him the admiration of world leaders, did not bear fruit. In that, he failed abjectly. The Oslo Accords imploded, the Arab Spring morphed into an Islamic winter, and the New Middle East became the ISIS Middle East.

In Rabin’s shadow

After the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, on November 6, 1995, which was attended by world leaders in numbers and of prestige unparalleled since Israel’s founding, Peres said to one of his aides, a bit enviously, “Did you see how many people came to his funeral?” And in Peres’ inimitable way, the aide related long afterward, he bit his lip and assumed a gloomy expression, as if mumbling to himself: He beat me again.

“He always told us how close he came to taking a bullet himself as he walked down the stairs in the square that Saturday evening, two minutes ahead of Rabin,” the aide related, adding, “We were never sure whether he was happy about that or regretted it. He was also offended when the assassin, Yigal Amir, said that he had stood opposite him at the bottom of the staircase, but decided to wait for Rabin, because he thought Peres wasn’t important enough.”

Peres, Rabin and Arafat in 1995.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

The impressive convoy of aircraft landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport also settles this final and one-sided flap between the two politicians whose rivalry and mutual resentment over three decades was no less intense than the cooperation between them in the early 1990s, cut short by Rabin’s assassination. Peres is giving Rabin a good fight. His funeral was set to be a grandiose affair, bedecked with leaders and presidents and kings and princes and prime ministers, no less spectacular than that of his mythic rival. On top of which, Rabin was cut down while in office by an extremist right-winger who was out to eradicate a peace process that had worldwide support. Peres died at a ripe old age, two years after leaving the President’s Residence when he no longer held any official position other than the perennial one called “Shimon Peres,” to which no title need be added.

The phoenix

Peres’ ability to recover from stinging setbacks on the political battleground on which he fought and was wounded, tripped and fell and rose again for most of his adult life, was nothing short of astonishing. In that regard he was almost superhuman. Like those part-human androids in sci-fi movies that have bunker-busting ammunition welded to their metal bodies and, after losing their balance momentarily, take a deep breath and continue fighting.

The loss to Benjamin Netanyahu by a percentage point in the 1996 election, following the brutal negative campaign waged against him, did not send Peres home to lick his wounds and write a book. He took a couple of days off and returned to the Knesset as a rank-and-file MK. The defeat he sustained in 2000, in his first run for the presidency, at the hands of Moshe Katsav, a bland, mediocre Likud minister, shattered his aides. But not him. He went on, as though he’d experienced little more than a light tremor in the wing.

His deepest humiliation occurred on a fine spring day in April 1990, in the Knesset plenum. He arrived, with his wife Sonia, to present his new government, two months after orchestrating the dissolution of the second unity government, as part of the “dirty trick” – or, in the iconic Hebrew phrase, the “smelly maneuver.” Two ultra-Orthodox MKs, appalled at the thought that they were about to become members of a left-wing government, pulled a dirty trick of their own: They disappeared from the plenum. With cameras rolling and the nation and the world watching, in a scene never seen in the Knesset before or since, Peres was forced to announce the cancellation of the government’s swearing-in.

The Speaker of the Knesset at the time, Dov Shilansky, related that Peres burst into tears in his office and implored Shilansky not to force him to make a public declaration in the plenum. Shilansky, a sensitive and sentimental person, acceded to Peres’ request despite pressure from his own party, Likud. The members of the Labor Alignment, as the party headed by Peres was then known, many of them dressed to the nines for the ceremony in which they were expecting to become cabinet ministers, convened in the Knesset cafeteria, heads bowed, mouths acrid, throats choking. Suddenly, like a ghost rising from the netherworld, who should stride in but the last person anyone expected would dare show his face? Peres walked between the tables like a bridegroom in a macabre blood wedding, conversed casually with his colleagues and reporters, said what he said (after a quarter of a century, it’s hard to remember what that was), analyzed the situation, exchanged views and went on his way.

He spent two years in the opposition before returning to the government as foreign minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, after the latter defeated him in the Labor primaries and led the party to victory in the 1992 election. That too was grist for the mill of Peres’ innate bitterness: He never won a real electoral contest. Never knew the joy of a clean, complete victory that would allow him to be his own pilot and to actualize his vision, his worldview.

His two short terms as prime minister – for a total of about two-and-a half-years – were made possible by an agreement with Likud on a rotation government, and then when he was chosen by the party to take the helm after Rabin’s assassination.

He saw the weanling Benjamin Netanyahu win four elections and rack up more than 10 years as prime minister. He had seen Ariel Sharon, who had become anathema in the eyes of the public, and was considered politically moribund, win the coveted job twice. Yitzhak Shamir, whom he held in contempt, Ehud Olmert, for whom he had no regard, and Ehud Barak, whom Peres begrudged for not allowing him to become honorary chair of Labor – they also won elections. He alone never made it. Something in the machinery always broke down, the algorithm always failed, there was always one terrorist attack too many. Always, in the final stretch, something went awry and deprived him of the coveted seat, the decisive percentage point.

Clashing ‘pasts’

One of Peres’ most fascinating traits, without which he would not likely have been able to keep going for all those decades, was his absolute inability to acknowledge or admit to mistakes. He was the person who never erred, never lost and was never defeated (the country lost, not him). As a result, his personal history and all his public “pasts” clash and contradict each other, painting a picture of built-in unreliability.

The signing of the Oslo Accords.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

He also found it difficult to praise others or share achievements with them. The Oslo Accords, considered a tremendous breakthrough at the time although their glory faded, were appropriated by him exclusively. He shunted the agreement’s hidden architects – Yossi Beilin, Yair Hirschfeld, Ron Pundak – to the sidelines.

As long as Peres lived and breathed politics, pursued official positions and titles, devised plots and deals and tricks, just like his colleagues, he was rejected by the public. It was unwilling to forgive him even for petty matters. The moment he abandoned politics and moved, alone, to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, the nation rediscovered him, forgave him his sins, both real and imagined, and took him into its heart.

Peres pursued honor relentlessly. His 80th and 90th birthday parties were grating, North Korean-like displays of kowtowing and glorification and praise to his face. And he, of course, knew nothing about all this in advance; he didn’t have a clue what was being cooked up behind his back. He was totally out of the loop, immersed in his books, floating about in the sacred realms of nanotechnology and peace plans while in his busy bureau, global productions were organized, featuring emotional leaders and intellectuals, fading Hollywood stars, performers and orchestras and school choirs, and videos filmed in his honor.

“I’m not involved in all that,” he would say, when asked – in exactly the kind of transparent shtick on which the word “bluff,” which he so loved, would be written in capital letters. When confronted with questions about the extravaganzas, he would reply angrily that they weren’t for him, it had nothing to do with him, he was a mere pawn. It all served the state.

Wreath and wrath

“This is a funeral I won’t enjoy,” was one of Ariel Sharon’s sarcastic jibes. One person who could identify with that deep insight is opposition and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog. In the two days leading up to Peres’ funeral, he conducted a campaign of imploring, cajoling and importuning, putting pressure on whoever wanted or didn’t want to listen, to be allowed to speak at the graveside ceremony.

Herzog, who, according to foreign reports is also conducting, with increasing and decreasing intensity, talks to join the Netanyahu coalition government, has a weakness for ceremonies, especially those with an international aura. The arrival in the Jewish state of world leaders, not least the incumbent U.S. president, would enable him to take part in creating a kind of peacenik atmosphere, or at least one of an improvised regional conference – especially if at the last minute the Egyptian president or the Jordanian king decide to join the Palestinian Authority president in showing up.

Herzog’s aides appealed to the head of the governmental committee for symbols and ceremonies, Culture Minister Miri Regev. She wasn’t eager to accede to his request to speak. In her attempt to defer him, she recruited the State of Israel’s official protocol, according to which the leader of the opposition is not on the list of local figures permitted to speak at state funerals. Only the president, the prime minister and the Knesset Speaker. Herzog’s people argued that the protocol is not holy writ. Flexibility is possible, if only because Herzog was Peres’ political partner for many years.

“It’s not reasonable for three figures from Likud to speak at Peres’ funeral and not a single person from the Labor Party, which Peres headed for 15 years,” members of Herzog’s circle complained. Regev remained unpersuaded. After the dispute between the two was reported by Channel 10 News, on Wednesday evening, Regev’s bureau issued a statement to the media stating explicitly what Herzog’s circle hoped would never become public: that the Peres family did not want Herzog to speak at the funeral, or at least had not explicitly asked for him to do so.

Isaac Herzog stands before the coffin of former Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Knesset plaza in Jerusalem September 29, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“According to the protocol, the leader of the opposition is not supposed to speak at state funerals,” Regev’s statement said. “At his request, the possibility that he would speak nevertheless was examined, but because of the large number of speakers and time constraints relating to the advent of Shabbat, this proved impossible.”

The next sentence, cruel and cold, was highlighted in bold so that no one could miss it: “The decision about the speakers at the ceremony was made in coordination with the family.” This is what sealed Herzog’s fate. If the problem had been with Regev, he would have put up a stink, but since the grieving family was involved, his hands were tied.

Regev went on to drive the last nail into the coffin bearing Herzog’s lost honor: “With all good will and respect for the leader of the opposition, Minister Regev made a great effort” – great, no less! – “for him to be able to lay a wreath as part of the funeral arrangements (and not along with the other wreaths), even though the leader of the opposition is not included in this.”

In fact, Regev’s great effort led to Herzog’s being able to lay a wreath on the grave together with representatives of the government’s main institutions. The words “the wreath being laid by the leader of the opposition” will be heard in the ceremony, at some stage, though they were not originally intended to be uttered on in the holy space of Mount Herzl. That’s the upgrade, that’s the bonus, that’s the bone that was thrown to him.

To Regev’s credit, it must be said that the statement was delicately phrased, in uncharacteristic understatement. Chekhov she may not read, but between the biting lines a hint of British humor could be divined.