In his last year as Israel’s president — and certainly earlier, too — Shimon Peres grasped that nothing productive would come from Benjamin Netanyahu. He started to create bypass routes in order to achieve a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. A hopeless project, but at least it gave him something to do. With the requisite secrecy, he revealed to his interlocutors the principles of the blueprint he was discussing with the Americans, Jordanians and Palestinians. They listened to him with the reverence and respect due a living legend, the last of the titans of Israeli politics, but also with astonishment. What in the world is he talking about, they wondered, as they left the presidential study, sworn to secrecy.
For good or for ill, Peres was indefatigable. The insult that Yitzhak Rabin hurled at him in his 1979 autobiography — “subverter” — clung to him for decades, an indelible stain. Relentless striving was a central trait of his character. Throughout, he strove for power, influence, jobs. No title was too minor for him. Never for himself, as he insisted relentlessly, only to advance the cause of peace.
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Even if Peres survives the serious stroke he suffered on Tuesday, this is definitely the end of an era. The last of Israel’s founding fathers, who was active in the public and world arenas, is leaving the stage. His pay slips over the years and generations rarely recorded sick leave, still less vacations. Vacations were punishment, boredom was death. His hunger for innovation, for science, for groundbreaking technology was infinite.
He reached the pinnacle of his career in his mid-eighties, when he was elected president in 2007, and became the father of the nation. The hatred, contempt and mockery that were his lot during the years in which he wallowed in the mud of local politics gave way to esteem, appreciation, even love. The Israeli public suddenly discovered that “our Shim'n,” as Ariel Sharon called him, was nothing less than an Israeli monument whose reputation preceded him in every corner of the globe. Rulers, presidents, monarchs abnegated themselves before him.
In his seven years as president, most of which paralleled Netanyahu’s premiership, Peres was Israel’s strategic asset in the international community. He was considered the sane, moderate voice of a country that shifted rightward as the prospect for a political settlement faded. He grew angry when he was accused of harnessing his reputation for the benefit of a prime minister who deceived him with empty promises. “I work for the state; Bibi is not yet the state,” he grumbled.
During the two years he served as prime minister of a unity government, between 1984 and 1986, he pushed through an economic plan that saved Israel from disaster, and he oversaw, together with Defense Minister Rabin, the Israel Defense Forces’ first withdrawal from deep inside Lebanon. His Likud partners in the government objected to both moves and heaped obstacles in his path. Given the short time he served as premier and the tough political conditions he faced, it’s fair to say he was one of our best prime ministers. His giant contribution to the country’s defense, more significant than that of generals who regarded him with disdain, took place in his younger years, when he assisted his mentor and guide David Ben-Gurion to establish both the young state’s military industries and the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
His great dream was to make peace with the Palestinians, but that grew more distant as he aged and became weaker. He is comparable to Sisyphus in Greek mythology – forever doomed to roll a boulder up a hill without every reaching the top.
The peace with Egypt was Menachem Begin’s doing; the peace with Jordan was Rabin’s. The Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were removed by Sharon. Peres hoped and dreamed that his name would be associated with a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. But with the passing years, the reality on the ground made the attainment of an agreement increasingly impossible. Peres is concluding his public career at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian situation is depressing and when the two nations are closer to a renewed confrontation than to any sort of agreement.
He never disavowed the Oslo Accords, which, in a coincidence that delighted the crazies on the right, was signed on September 13, 1993, 23 years to the day before Peres collapsed in Sheba Medical Center. His right-wing critics, who blame the accord for all of Israel’s woes, have never explained what their alternative is, other than to persist in the existing situation.
Possibly no other public figure in Israel’s history endured more vilification and protracted, systematic character assassination than Peres. Even though he was considered a professional politician, there was always something ham-handed about him — as though the rules of the game weren’t sufficiently clear to him. Despite all the battles and the more-or-less dirty tricks in which he was involved, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, Peres always somehow seemed unable to figure out how to navigate the bloody, sweaty trenches of Israeli politics.
An air of frustration and irritation always accompanied him. Even at the height of his popularity, with an 85 percent approval rating as president, he could easily be dragged into a show of bitterness about past events and former rivals. He always projected the feeling that if only he had won a full and complete election victory and had served a full term as prime minister, everything would have been different.
Let us hope he recovers and enjoys as much health as possible given the difficult circumstances. No one deserves to end his life helpless, emptied out, dependent on the mercy of others. Certainly not Shimon Peres, who in his life never rested for a minute.
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