Avi Gil had a regular joke that he would tell correspondents on the prime minister’s plane. The plane crashes, and the next day banner headlines appear about the leader who perished, and deep inside, on the “continued” pages, it would say, “Also killed was A. Gil.” We would all laugh politely, and be happy when we reached our destination safely, the gloomy prediction not borne out in reality. But like every joke, Gil’s crash allegory contained a truth at its heart.
For the 28 years during which he was Shimon Peres’ close adviser, he remained the ultimate shadow figure. It’s very unlikely that anyone recognizes him when he passes by in his slovenly clothes in his neighborhood, on Tel Aviv’s trendy Sheinkin Street. It was the same in the past, when he held senior positions at both the Foreign Ministry and in the Prime Minister’s Bureau: He avoided exposure and never gave interviews on record, and unlike others who were close to Peres and pursued independent political careers – he remained by the boss’ side until Peres’ last day.
Now Gil is coming out of hiding with a book, “The Peres Formula: Diary of a Confidant” (“Nuskhat Peres” in Hebrew), in which he offers a trenchant inside-the-room description of the late foreign minister, prime minister and president. Never has a bare-all portrait like this of an Israeli leader been written by a member of his trusted inner circle. In addition to documenting Peres’ great moments as a brilliant statesman, visionary and master of stratagems, Gil also describes the pursuit of honor that repeatedly tripped Peres up, his obsessiveness about Yitzhak Rabin, his condescension toward the Arabs, and the “shameful men’s talk” that would fill dead moments in the bureau and on flights.
When Gil talked in the bureau about the pressures that work could create for the staff’s wives and children, Peres replied, “It’s the nature of women to always keep us men in a state of being apologizers and justifiers. Nothing helps. Nothing you can do will change that reality. The children don’t need the parents. Let them grow up alone and you’ll find that everything works out by itself.” Peres had a model in mind: “A family is not something normal. Look at the Bedouin children – no one pays attention to them, they run around in the tent without a lot of supervision. They never cry and they always look happy.”
Or the passage in which Gil describes Peres’ abrupt shift “from a discussion of philosophical issues to stand-up performances.” “In off-the-wall conversations, which sometimes repeated themselves in a kind of ritual that an outsider wouldn’t understand,” Gil would ask his team, “Did you notice the gorgeous shiksa who came onto the plane with us?” Peres, he writes, “would quickly play his part and say, ‘Tell me, Avi, have you ever done it with a shiksa?’ My role was to play the innocent: ‘But, Shimon, what’s the difference? You know, all women are created with the same anatomy.’
“Peres looked at me as though I were the last of the fools, and explained, ‘Our Jewesses are doing you a favor. As if they’re suffering from it. Something always hurts them, bothers them. Shiksas, on the other hand, enjoy every minute, they have no complexes, they like to pamper you and they invest their whole heart in the mission.’ Naturally, he would be ready for my inevitable next question: ‘Where did you get this information about all these differences?’ His demure answer: ‘Friends have told me.’”
The book is based on a personal diary that Gil kept during his years of working alongside Peres. He made entries in it during boring periods in meetings, in breaks during conferences, on flights. Peres knew about the diary and urged Gil to publish it. Gil was evasive, saying, “In my book you might not come off as well as you expect” – to which Peres would respond that he had no problem with Gil writing the truth.
“I believed him when he said he was prepared to take criticism,” he says, “but I was concerned that he wouldn’t be happy to be stripped of the official suit and of the pose he displayed to the public Leaders reveal themselves to their advisers, they want to trust their loyalty. Believe that they won’t make public sensitive details that will embarrass them and hurt their image. But in the face of personal loyalty, there is loyalty to the truth. After all, this is not gossip about a private individual: This is an elected official whose decisions determine fates.”
Interviewed this week in his home, Gil, 63, says he censored nothing and that the military censors and the ministerial committee that authorizes books by politicians and civil servants also deleted only small passages. “In some way it’s a public duty of those who were in these places, where decisions are made that are sometimes fateful – a moment comes when you have to tell the story,” he says.
Ultimately, what tipped the scales in favor of publishing the diary was Gil’s wish to perpetuate the work of the statesman Peres. “He knew that I saw him as the decisive figure who brought about the signing of the Oslo Accords, and that I was aware first-hand of his meaningful contribution to the peace agreement with Jordan. He believed that my testimony would be taken as reliable,” writes Gil. He doesn’t purport to be a historian, but hopes to contribute to those who will write Israel’s history in the future.
‘The Peres formula’
At the heart of the book lie the Oslo Accords, which were initially signed in the summer of 1993 and brought about recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, and later the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. At the time, Peres was foreign minister in the government of his political rival, Yitzhak Rabin.
In the initial stages, from late 1992 though the spring of 1993, the negotiations were conducted by two external “academics,” Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, in coordination with the then-deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin. In May 1993 the line was crossed: Management of the talks was passed to Uri Savir, the Foreign Ministry’s director general, and Joel Singer, the ministry’s legal adviser. For the first time, official representatives of Israel held negotiations on a political agreement with representatives of the liberation organization of the Palestinians, headed by Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei), Arafat’s confidant. That was the key moment in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
Gil, who was then the foreign minister’s bureau chief, relates how Peres instructed him to send Savir to Oslo. “Call Uri and give him the green light,” he said to Gil. The latter pressed him: “To give Uri a green light, even though that’s not completely what Rabin asked for?”
“Peres gave me an impatient look and snapped, ‘You understood right,’” Gil writes in the book’s opening. He goes on to elaborate about how the prime minister, who loathed Peres, evaded giving authorization for the talks, and even after they got underway, attempted to change his mind. But Peres did not give in, the agreement was achieved, and Rabin took responsibility for it, attended the signing ceremony in Washington and shook hands with Arafat. Peres’ accomplishment, Gil writes, lay in his success in harnessing Rabin to the move, thereby ensuring its realization.
This is the “Peres formula” as discerned by Gil and described in his book: “In my long years of working with Peres, I accompanied a leader who never stopped dreaming and never stopped fighting to overcome the obstacles standing in his way. Generally, he made his journeys to the destination from the position of a ‘supporting actor,’ in the political and perhaps also in the psychological sense of the role, even if not always according to the bureaucratic definition. Even when he worked alongside Ben-Gurion, he remained a ‘supporting actor.’ The final and decisive word was almost never his. It was that of the prime minister.”
That’s the essence of Peres’ achievements and also of his frustration. He blossomed when he gave free rein to his dreams and stratagems, but he always needed the strong backing of someone like Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon – people who were not visionaries but knew how to bear responsibility and mobilize a political majority for controversial moves, such as the Oslo Accords or the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Today the Oslo Accords are perceived as a failure by large parts of the Israeli public. Do you still believe in it?
“I will not deny that significant mistakes were made by both sides. On the Palestinian side, they did not control and did not stifle the terrorism effectively. That was a terrible wrong, flaw or sin – all those words are correct. Both because of the victims who died and also because it sabotaged the possibility of progressing from there. And on our side, especially, because of the settlements. Because according to the Palestinian narrative – and I don’t have a good answer when they thrust it in my face – they say: ‘In Oslo we made a tremendous concession from our point of view, of 75 percent of our dream, of what in our opinion is ours, of the territory between the sea and the river, and what has been left to us are the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which constitute about 25 percent. We agreed to recognize you on the basis of our understanding that Gaza and the West Bank are ours, it doesn’t matter in what form [not necessarily as a state, but as long as they could see the land as theirs], and since then you have been eating away at that territory. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a right-wing or left-wing government, since we signed on the White House lawn, the number of settlements has done something between doubling and tripling.’”
Despite those mistakes, Gil has no doubt that Oslo was the right move and that history will vindicate him. “Above all,” he says during our conversation, “Oslo brought about mutual recognition, by Israel of the Palestinian entity and nationality, and by the Palestinians of the State of Israel. That’s a critical path, because it implies the [eventual] division of the country. You can say, we didn’t get there, we failed. But when a peace agreement is signed and people look back, there will be across-the-board agreement that Oslo was the turning point. It will take time, there will be regressions and obstacles, but I believe that it is still possible and also that it will happen. Not necessarily because Israel and the Palestinians will get their act together and do it themselves.
“I surmise that there will be geopolitical processes, international pressures. But at the end of the day, it’s impossible to ignore the reality: Between the sea and the river there are two peoples. If you want a Jewish state with a Jewish character, it needs a majority of about 80 percent Jews, and that requires partition of the territory. That is the meaning of Oslo and we can not escape it.”
Perhaps Israel didn’t go far enough at Oslo, when it made do with an interim arrangement instead of trying to achieve a final-status agreement?
“It was impossible to go further at Oslo. There is an in-built hitch in every interim agreement. Why do those agreements exist? Because it’s impossible otherwise. To take Israel and the Palestinians during that period to a final-status agreement was impossible.”
And now it is possible?
“Because in the years that have gone by, there’s been a human and political process of becoming accustomed to a certain reality. For many long years, surveys that have repeated themselves on both sides showed that a majority of support exists for the agreement package we’re all familiar with [two states on the basis of the 1967 borders and a limited, agreed-upon territorial swap].”
Virtuoso diplomacy, failed politicking
Avi Gil was born and grew up in Haifa, in a housing project of Egged cooperative bus drivers in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. His father, who came to pre-state Palestine from Brest-Litovsk (then in Poland, today, Brest, Belarus) with his family at the age of 1, was a driver. Before the state’s establishment, the father served in the procurement department of the Haganah, the underground pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews; he was captured by the British and tortured severely, and spent two years in the Latrun detention camp. Gil’s mother was born in Haifa to a family of Polish origin.
His parents sent him to the prestigious Reali School and thereafter he joined the Nahal Brigade, together with his high-school friends. As a reserve soldier, he took a paramedics course, and when he was called up as a combat paramedic in the 1982 Lebanon war, he encountered the formative experience of his life. His unit was posted to the military prison at Megiddo, to which thousands of Palestinian detainees were sent from Lebanon. Until then he’d believed in the stories about the rightness of Israel’s way and the “purity of arms” – morality in combat – that he’d heard at home.
“In Megiddo everything fell apart,” he writes. “I witnessed a series of abuse of bound detainees. I saw how people from my people beat [them] with wooden poles, irrigation pipes, kicked them in rage and sometimes with a smile and real pleasure. I was convinced that I was observing the implementation of ‘policy from above.’ I complained.” The complaint was whitewashed, and Gil refused to provide the names of his brutal comrades, on the grounds that accounts had to be settled with the senior echelons that had permitted the violence.
That episode persuaded Gil that the occupation itself corrupts. “Increasingly I was won over to Peres’ path [Peres was then the leader of the opposition to Menachem Begin’s Likud government]; increasingly I aspired to assist him,” he writes. While studying economics and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he came across a Foreign Ministry notice inviting candidates to its cadets course. He hadn’t dreamt of a diplomatic career, but his friends pushed him to go. After passing the training period successfully, he was sent as a junior diplomat to Nepal and afterward to Canada, where he served as spokesperson of the embassy in Ottawa. There he caught the eye of the “boys in the blazers” – Peres’ aides – during a state visit. Two years later, in July 1988, he became Peres’ media adviser; at the time Peres was foreign minister in the rotation government with Yitzhak Shamir.
You talk about a deep moral motive that impelled you to work with Peres in order to make peace and free the country from ruling a foreign nation. But in all the passages in the book in which you quote Peres, there is no reference to the moral wrong of the occupation, the Palestinians’ suffering, the question of the legality of the settlements. Diplomatic arrangements are presented primarily as a way to solve Israel’s international problems, or to promote Peres’ personal accomplishments.
“Peres is a bit’honist [someone who sees most issues through the prism of security]. He sees first and foremost Israel’s interest, its existence, its survival. In terms of his life mission, to which he gave expression in no few conversations, he saw two mileposts: Dimona and Oslo. The Dimona milepost [acquisition of the nuclear reactor there from France] guaranteed Israel’s security, and that’s what makes it possible to strive to fulfill an additional Jewish dream: peace with the neighbors.
“He realized one dream, and played a central role in the breakthrough to the other, in Oslo, and also in Jordan, although people try to make us forget his contribution to the latter. Besides that, in my interpretation, when you’re a politician and you need to collect votes and preserve popularity in Israel, if you put your finger on the suffering of the Palestinians as part of your political argument, you won’t get far politically. And he was a sober-eyed politician.”
Still, Peres is far from coming across as a lover of Arabs in Gil’s book, or as taking a real interest in their culture and way of life. On the contrary: He expresses the prejudices of many Israeli Jews, who see their neighbors as backward and deserving of the Western way of life. “It’s a different era,” Peres stated. “The young Arab male does not wish to be an effendi when he grows up, and the young Arab female has no interest in looking fat and ungroomed, like her mother. She aspires to look like the thin female star in a Hollywood television series.”
In early November 1993, just weeks after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Peres paid a secret visit to King Hussein in Jordan, accompanied by Gil, who was then his bureau chief, and the deputy chief of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, who served as a liaison between Israel’s leaders and the Hashemite royal house. The foreign minister displayed astonishing diplomatic skill: He dominated the conversation, didn’t allow the Jordanians to finish a sentence, and at the end of the lengthy meeting dictated to Halevy “in one breath and without recourse to notes and without omitting a detail from the protracted discussions,” a four-page document that detailed the principles of a bilateral peace accord. “The Jordanians accepted the fait accompli without inserting any meaningful corrections,” according to Gil. Peres and the king initialed the document.
The heights of the achievements of Peres the statesman are matched only by the depths of the failure of Peres the politician, for example with respect to the meeting in Jordan. “I learned from past experience that he has a temptation to appear over-smart and to hint at secret moves. It’s important for him to be seen in retrospect as a person who knew about and was responsible for the action,” writes Gil. He urged his boss to maintain secrecy about his trip to Jordan, but to no avail. Back in Israel, Peres hinted transparently at the secret meeting while he was in the makeup room of a television studio. The Jordanians were furious and broke off contact; the talks were renewed a few months later, but this time Peres was excluded, and the channel was managed by Rabin through Efraim Halevy. In July 1994, Rabin and King Hussein met openly for the first time at the White House, and issued a declaration of principles for the peace treaty that was signed three months later at a ceremony in the Arava desert in southern Israel.
Armagnac and ice cream
On the evening of the Washington event, the members of the Israeli delegation and the accompanying press corps were invited to a dinner at the residence of Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich. Rabin sipped wine and went on and on about his loathing and contempt for the foreign minister, who sat cringing with insult in the corner of the room. The prime minister’s message was clear: I and I alone conducted the successful negotiations with Jordan, with the help of this person – he pointed to Halevy, who was still a senior Mossad official whose identity could not be publicized – and Peres contributed nothing.
We sat there, taking notes. Afterward I went with Udi Segal, who was then the diplomatic correspondent of Army Radio, to meet with the losers in the Mayflower Hotel suite of the billionaire businessman S. Daniel Abraham, a Peres confidant and a longtime donor to peace projects. The lighting was dim. The humiliated foreign minister drowned his sorrows in Armagnac, while we ate Haagen-Dazs ice cream served by a waiter from a room-service cart. Uri Savir huddled in a corner with New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, and Gil summoned Udi and me to a side room. There he opened his bag, took out a printed document and said, “Peres hates that I’m doing this, but read it.” It was the shelved document that Peres had drawn up during his secret visit to Amman; Gil showed us how the declaration signed by Rabin and Hussein was effectively its copy-paste version.
I had first met Gil a few months earlier in the foreign minister’s bureau in Jerusalem, after I was appointed diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz. He didn’t give of himself easily, and first sent me to do my homework: to read the Oslo Accords in detail. Afterward, we had many meetings in his different roles; in recent years we met during the preparations for the annual Haaretz-sponsored Israel Conference on Peace, for which he has served as content adviser. He was always an excellent briefer, offered helpful advice about writing articles, and had a good command of both the details and the broad picture – as well as possessing a superb sense of humor and great impersonation skills.
In his book Gil sets forth the dilemma of the media adviser, who is torn between telling journalists the truth and the need to conceal political moves. He describes the acrobatics he had to do during the secret negotiations of the Oslo process, when journalists now and then would discover that something was going on. As Peres’ adviser, he had to cope with his boss’ complex relations with the media, his endless hunger for credit and recognition, the agonizing affront at every uncomplimentary item buried deep inside the paper or on the fringes of the television newscast. As the supporting actor, Peres always felt obligated to convince others that he had played an important role in weaving the diplomatic moves, contrary to the prevailing impression that “the foreign minister was left on the outside.”
Gil also relates that Peres’ obsession with Rabin was an oppressive shadow that hovered over him throughout his career. He writes about a nocturnal conversation a few weeks before Rabin’s murder in November 1995, during the Taba talks about the interim agreement (Oslo II) with the Palestinians.
His tongue loosened by weariness and cognac, the foreign minister revealed his own suicidal tendencies to his bureau chief. “He felt a need to talk about the events of the day,” Gil writes. “Almost always he ended up talking about Rabin: ‘He’s scared. He can’t decide and he doesn’t give credit. I behave nobly toward him and don’t ask a thing for myself. I act with perfect sincerity. I don’t care if I die tomorrow morning. I am not afraid of death. Death makes no impression on me. Rabin gets all the credit. Soon he’ll say that he did the reactor. He was afraid. All my life I discovered that the generals piss in their pants, out of fear. I am an exceptional politician. I have perfect integrity. I don’t care if I die tomorrow morning. I am not afraid of death. I sometimes wake up and regret that I am not dead. I’m fed up, but I understand that no one can fulfill my role.’”
That whole picture was instantaneously transformed after Rabin’s assassination. I arrived at the Kirya (the defense establishment headquarters, in Tel Aviv) that night to cover the special cabinet meeting at which Peres was chosen acting prime minister. Gil and media adviser Behira Bardugo arrived to update reporters in the Defense Ministry’s parking lot. One look was enough to see how the rejected kids in the class had in a trice become those who wielded power. But the experience was short-lived: Peres had a hard time functioning as prime minister, and just over a half-year later lost the general election to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gil writes that Peres made a mistake by not appointing Ehud Barak defense minister, taking that portfolio for himself instead and sending Barak to the Foreign Ministry. He believes that the former chief of staff and commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, as the government’s senior security figure, could have helped to avert the defeat. Peres didn’t agree with him.
Netanyahu reenters Gil’s story a decade and a half later. Peres is president of Israel. Netanyahu, now back in power and apprehensive of American pressure and of upheavals in the Arab world, allows Peres to conduct negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama, in an effort to come up with a blueprint for the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Netanyahu is prepared to have Peres present his interlocutors with a paper, according to which the negotiations will strive for the establishment of a Palestinian state with an area similar to that existing before 1967 – but at the same time to explain that Netanyahu is not committed to that map. It is something of a declaration and its very opposite, within the same document.
Gil was momentarily tempted to believe that the prime minister would back the move Peres had engineered. But then at the last minute Netanyahu cancelled a critical meeting between Peres and Abbas, in Amman on July 28, 2011. That was the last diplomatic move Peres promoted. In contrast to Rabin, whom Peres succeeded in shifting to his side despite their mutual hatred, Netanyahu succeeded in evading the issue and did not enter into substantive negotiations.
Bibi’s ‘strategic thesis’
Gil believes that Netanyahu is far more sophisticated than his political foes, who tend to see his actions as motivated by political survival and to ignore the conceptions underlying his policies.
“Netanyahu is comporting himself with a view to a goal that he is not revealing,” says Gil. “In my view, and also from being nearby during certain times, during talks and various moves, I think he lives with the feeling that the current geopolitical situation is not appropriate for an agreement, and that we need the strategic patience to wait. In his view, that waiting does not carry a price that is too high – we’ve already waited 50 years, and we can wait another 50 – and from his viewpoint what’s happening in Syria proves his thesis that time is not working against us.”
He continues: “I disagree strongly with that thesis, but the left has to cope with it, and not only with Sara [Netanyahu] and the corruption. Netanyahu has a strategic thesis, and just as he does not want peace now, he also does not want annexation now. He doesn’t want to build in the settlements outside the blocs, despite the pressure of the annexationist camp, because he knows that moves like that are liable to generate international pressure that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Bibi prefers the status quo and waiting for a preferential strategic environment, in order to take as much territory as possible, with as few Palestinians as possible, for Israel.”
There’s an interesting similarity between Peres and Netanyahu that you barely mention in the book: the cozying up to billionaires, the flights in their private planes, the donations.
“The fact that someone has money and is successful in business doesn’t necessarily make him a bad, negative person. There are quite a few people like that, who instead of keeping all their money for themselves donate quite a bit to things – some of which we don’t even know about.”
What about the outward appearance?
“I can understand why it’s irritating. But, for example, say you’re in the United States and you have to get from point A to point B and you have no way to do it, and all for the sake of the State of Israel. You have to give a talk to the most important American high-tech forum, and you’re offered a plane, and the response you get from the ministry is that you can’t accept, because it’s a gift. Sometimes you do those things not to pamper yourself but for the sake of a national cause. Of course, everything is according to law and civil service regulations.”
After you left the civil service in 2002, you went on advising Peres on a voluntary basis, and you relate how you took part in diplomatic consultations with prime ministers and drafted peace proposals and diplomatic working papers. Does this phenomenon of private advisers, such as [Netanyahu’s former, private diplomatic emissary] Isaac Molcho, with whom you worked on formulations during the Netanyahu period, seem proper to you?
“It’s improper, but the flaw lies not in those who agree to volunteer but in the system that allows it. There’s something very human in prime ministers, who at certain moments need someone they can trust implicitly and whose activity allows for deniability, as in the preliminary talks in Oslo.”
Gil esteems Peres for his readiness to have at his side talented people who often disputed his positions and his actions, and not just yes-men. He describes several serious disputes with Peres, such as the latter’s vote in favor of launching the Second Lebanon War in 2006, even though he agreed with Gil that it was a serious mistake. Peres, who at the time was a cabinet member from Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party, explained his vote in terms of the need to maintain unity of ranks during a national crisis, whereas Gil thinks that precisely at such a moment it’s necessary to rise above that and insist on what you think, even if you know that your vote will change nothing. In the same breath, he praises Peres for his public opposition to the idea of bombing the nuclear sites in Iran, as this strengthened the stance of the heads of the defense establishment against Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak. That was an unpopular position, and Peres, who feared a catastrophe, expressed it publicly and courageously – and became irretrievably embroiled in arguments with Netanyahu and Barak.
A year and a half after Peres’ death, Gil is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and an adviser to the National Library in Jerusalem. Peres is still foremost in his thoughts, he says. “I miss him very much, and he sometimes appears to me in dreams. Some of his wisdom is even clearer to me today than what I saw when I worked with him.”