The Countless Contradictions of the Late and Great Shimon Peres

Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders lauding him today undermined Shimon Peres when it could have made a difference.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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MIT database says neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) nor President Shimon Peres is most famous Israeli of last century.
MIT database says neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) nor President Shimon Peres is most famous Israeli of last century.
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Friedrich Nietzsche provided the formula that was the essence of Shimon Peres’s long and remarkable life. “One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition that the soul does not relax, does not long for peace,” the German philosopher wrote, as if he was intimately acquainted with the intricacies of the future Israeli leader.

But Peres longed for peace, you might protest, but you’d be wrong. Peres longed for peace for Israel, but not for himself. He fought for peace every way he could, conventionally and unconventionally, with the armies at his disposal and with guerilla tactics, in direct confrontations as well as psychological warfare. If Peres had seen peace in his time he would have grown tired of it and moved on to something else, which he did in any case. His soul never relaxed, as Nietzsche noted, which is why he stayed forever young even as he grew old.

Read more on Shimon Peres: 1923-2016 | From nuclear pioneer to champion of peace | Obama, world leaders mourn Peres | Shimon Peres, the eternal immigrant | Peres' quixotic battle for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Peres was abundantly rich in contradictions. It made him fruitful and fascinating, complicated instead of straightforward, multilayered rather than direct. It was his greatest strength but also his biggest weakness. Throughout most of his life, the Israeli public shied away from Peres’ complexity. It was misinterpreted as a sign of deviousness and even corruption. It sparked fear and hostility, before these emotions evolved, in the twilight of his life, to appreciation and admiration.

Peres was Israel, from start to finish, but he was never fully accepted as an Israeli. In his life he was often seen as an outsider and in his death he is depicted as an apparition from the heavens above. Peres lived in Israel for 82 of his 93 years, but he never looked like an Israeli, never sounded like one, never behaved like one and never thought like one. He was a man of the world in a country that sees only itself, a connoisseur of nuance and finesse playing to bleachers of bluster and bombast, a rational actor on a stage where emotions reign supreme.

Peres was a founder of the country’s defense establishment but also a pioneer of its search for peace. He fathered Israeli settlements in the territories but crafted the instruments of their potential demise. He was the first Israeli leader to treat Palestinian leaders as human beings, going out of his way to show respect and sometimes affection, but he was a Johnny-come-lately in supporting Palestinian statehood. As prime minister he ordered Operation Grapes of Wrath, possibly for electoral reasons, and it was under his watch that the Israeli Army committed the Qana massacre in South Lebanon, in which over a hundred Palestinians were killed.

Peres was the architect and sub-contractor of Israel’s doomsday apparatus, but he was ridiculed as a wishy-washy trench-dodger, scorned for preferring suits to khakis, never accepted as one of the boys. He was a hawk who was mistaken for a dove, a local-patriot with cosmopolitan designs, a pragmatist portrayed as an idealist, a man of vision described by his enemies as suffering from hallucinations. Peres was insulted to the very core of his being when his arch rival Yitzhak Rabin branded him forever as a “tireless schemer” in his 1970’s autobiography Service Book, but he was all that and more: a tireless dreamer, a tireless thinker, a tireless planner, a tireless speaker, a tireless persuader, a tireless reader, a tireless writer and a tireless performer. Sometimes, he was a tireless gossip as well.

Peres seemed like a fish out of water in rough and tumble Israeli politics, but he was also a shark, ready to devour his rivals with nary a thought. He was a vain man who was sensitive to the slightest slight from the lowliest of politicians and journalists, yet he absorbed more scorn and ridicule than any other Israeli politician and always came out stronger.

U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with former President Shimon Peres during an official state dinner in Jerusalem, Israel, March 21, 2013.
(From left) Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Defense Minister Shimon Peres, left, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, following the IDF hostage-rescue mission in Entebbe, on July 4, 1976.
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U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with former President Shimon Peres during an official state dinner in Jerusalem, Israel, March 21, 2013.Credit: Jason Reed, Reuters
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(From left) Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO
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Defense Minister Peres, left, and Prime Minister Rabin, after the IDF mission in Entebbe. Clashed bitterly over whether to negotiate with the hijackers.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office
Shimon Peres: 1923-2016, A Life in Pictures

Peres didn’t suffer fools gladly and he surrounded himself with the best and the brightest. He was always flabbergasted when bettered by the simpler and more direct Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir and amazed when they seemed more popular too. Peres was often too clever by half, way too smart for his own good: perhaps this is the secret of his soft spot for Benjamin Netanyahu, a politician as well read and as self-conflicted as Peres himself.

Peres fulfilled every major role that Israel had to offer yet often sounded as if he’d been unjustly denied. He was lauded and feted and admired throughout the world, yet felt deprived and thirsted for more. He is being hailed now as the godfather of peace in the Middle East, yet it was Menachem Begin who signed a peace treaty with Egypt and Rabin who reached an accord with King Hussein of Jordan, while Peres’ offspring, the Oslo Accords, stalled and derailed. And while the 1993 agreement was a springboard for an unprecedented Israeli renaissance in the diplomatic, cultural and technological arenas, Peres was denied proper credit and singled out instead as the man who brought terror to Israel’s doorstep.

In his latter years, Peres was Israel’s fig leaf. The man who was always depicted as a foreign entity miraculously metamorphosed into a poster boy for the Zionist entity. He was the Israel that everyone wanted it to be, rather than the country that actually is. He epitomized an innovative, forward-looking, peace-seeking cosmopolitanism, an Israel that is a member in good standing in the international community, a beacon onto the nations rather than a recalcitrant occupier and subjugator of the Palestinians. He was unappreciated and undermined, by Israeli politicians as well as American Jewish leaders, when he needed help and was in a position to make history; he was embraced and placed on a pedestal only when it made no difference at all.

Peres was, the New Yorker once wrote of Winston Churchill, larger than life, a giant among pygmies, warts and all. Over the course of the past 30 years, it was my privilege and my pleasure to enjoy his company from time to time, on good days as well as awful. Like most politicians, Peres liked to talk, but unlike his peers, he sometimes chose to listen. He was concerned with himself, but interested in his interlocutor as well. He had a wicked sense of humor, though one reserved mainly for his enemies rather than himself.

I was never blind to Peres’ shortcomings, though I can’t say he appreciated it when I occasionally pointed them out. He was brilliant but sometimes obtuse, curious but always self-centered, broad minded but sometimes petty, generous but sometimes vindictive and mean. He was no Nietzschean superman by any measure but whenever I was with him there was never a doubt in my mind that I was in the company of greatness.

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