Shimon Peres managed to do in death what the leader of every world power has been trying unsuccessfully to do for several years now – get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet. Barring any unexpected changes or mishaps, the PA president will set foot on Israeli soil on Friday for the first time in six years. The funeral isn’t expected to turn into a Netanyahu-Abbas summit, but at a time when the disconnect and distrust between the two leaders is so deep, even a handshake for the cameras is an achievement.
Peres’ funeral will not just be a farewell to one of Israel and the world’s greatest statesmen, but also an international gathering at which all the participants, with the possible exception of Israeli government representatives, are united behind his chief legacy of the last 25 years – the Oslo Accord and the two-state solution. Virtually the only reason why world leaders, headed by U.S. President Barack Obama, are flocking to the funeral is that they identify Peres utterly with the peace process.
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Peres didn’t have the privilege of seeing his dream of peace come true in his lifetime. The Oslo Accord that he crafted wasn’t completed. The disengagement from Gaza, which he supported and helped to pass in the Knesset, didn’t turn the Gaza Strip into Hong Kong, to say the least. And his efforts to push Netanyahu into launching serious, genuine negotiations with Abbas won him mainly frustration and bitterness.
But world leaders admire Peres because he tirelessly sought to promote the peace process, and even more they admire the seriousness and sincerity of his intentions. Nobody in the world ever thought Peres was trying to buy time, postpone the end, deceive, lead astray or negotiate for the sake of negotiating.
Peres’ record on everything to do with the peace process is just one example of the enormous difference between his diplomatic and security legacy and that of Netanyahu. There’s virtually no overlap between the two. This goes far beyond the basic differences between Peres’ Labor movement and the Revisionist movement in which Netanyahu was raised. The two men are diametric opposites.
Peres advocated openness and cooperation with the international community, while Netanyahu favors hunkering down behind the barricades and believes the entire world is against us. Peres was an optimist and full of self-confidence, while Netanyahu is a pessimist who always sees himself as a victim. Peres constantly took the initiative, while Netanyahu advocates a policy of “sit still and do nothing.” Peres advocated an incremental policy of one more tree, one more acre, while Netanyahu takes an all-or-nothing approach. Netanyahu sanctifies the status quo, while Peres strove indefatigably to change the regional reality. Peres was a man of action, while Netanyahu gives speeches from the gallery.
To Netanyahu’s credit, it must be said that from a political standpoint, his approach has proven its worth. Peres lost most of his elections, while Netanyahu is now serving his third term in a row as prime minister.
Peres earned large helpings of scorn for his slogan about the “New Middle East,” but during his term as foreign minister in the early 1990s, he turned this vision into reality. Following the Oslo Accord, Arab states began to open up to Israel. Israeli embassies and legations opened from Morocco to Oman, from Qatar to Tunisia and Mauritania. The New Middle East that the right so loved to make fun of is exactly what Netanyahu has been trying to achieve with Arab states for several years now, but without success.
Netanyahu would have to do much less today than Peres had to do in the early 1990s to achieve warmer relations with the Arab world. No Arab country today is demanding that he sign an Oslo Accord or withdraw from the territories tomorrow. To create a New Middle East for Israel, Netanyahu would only have to take relatively modest steps, like freezing settlement construction or agreeing to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Netanyahu talks a lot about his flourishing relations with Arab states. But because of his refusal to take such limited steps on the Palestinian issue, no Arab country, including Egypt and Jordan, will agree to make even the smallest public gesture toward Israel.
In briefings he has given to the media in recent weeks, Netanyahu needled Ilana Dayan, a leading television journalist, and urged her to do a story for her investigative reporting program “Uvda” on how widely admired he is around the world. Peres wanted to get credit, to be embraced by the media and loved by the public no less than Netanyahu does. But there’s no need to do an investigative report to discover how admired Peres is worldwide. It’s enough to turn on the television.
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