If Shimon Peres had opened his eyes on the day after his stroke and seen the newspaper headlines, he surely would have protested. “Fighting for my life? No way. Fighting, okay, but for my life? It’s for our lives, our country – it’s the future that I’m fighting for. For all my years in this country.”
Read more on Shimon Peres: The countless contradictions of the late and great Shimon Peres | Obama, world leaders mourn Peres | Shimon Peres, the eternal immigrant | Peres' quixotic battle for Israeli-Palestinian peace | Peres, 1923-2016: an interactive timeline
He was an ageless man, Peres. He was the boy who skipped a grade, later to become the old man among the young. When he met John F. Kennedy at the White House, Barack Obama was a year and a half old. The Peres Center is an extraordinarily apt name – Shimon Peres at the center.
A month and a half ago, at our last meeting, he was still studying Israeli politics, its people and parties, who’s in and who’s on the cusp. He was in on all the gossip and ready to hear more. He was especially keen to hear the latest on the investigation into the Netanyahu family.
Peres, who now shares his death date with Gamal Abdel Nasser, never retired. When Yigal Allon, his rival in the race for the Labor Party leadership before the 1981 election, died suddenly, Yitzhak Rabin said Allon had died “with his boots on,” like Custer at Little Big Horn.
Peres wore his boots for more years, many more, than any other public figure in Israel’s history, more than Golda Meir, more than David Ben-Gurion. Yet he too died with his boots on.
He wasn’t indifferent. That was his eternal advantage in the endless search for new paths. But it was also his disadvantage because he worried too much about what was said about him. He wanted to be esteemed, of course, but above all he wanted to be popular, and even more – to be loved.
This vulnerability was mercilessly exploited by his colleagues and rivals; sometimes these roles were played by the same person. They knew he cared immensely about “what they’d say,” and they attacked his weak spots until they shattered.
As Peres once put it: “There were three things Ben-Gurion knew he could trust me on: That I would never say anything to him that wasn’t true, that I would never speak ill of another person, and that I would never seek anything for myself.”
The only thing he ever sought for himself was that people would think he didn’t seek anything for himself, but this was beyond his reach.
That’s how Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu toppled him; Shamir when in the mid-’80s Peres forwent a peace move with Jordan’s King Hussein in order to keep the rotation agreement between the Alignment and Likud. After all, he didn’t want people to say again that he was subversive, a manipulator and untrustworthy. Especially untrustworthy.
With Netanyahu, it happened a decade later when Peres botched a victory in the 1996 election when he appeared in a debate that let Bibi close the gap. He didn’t want people to say he was evasive and scared.
Thus Peres made a decisive, if not exclusive, contribution to transforming Netanyahu from a footnote in Israeli history to a warning from history. The characteristics he rightly attributed to himself in the years of Sturm und Drang – “audacity and courage” – were sadly lacking in the years of noblesse oblige and the Nobel Peace Prize.
After Oslo he reluctantly acknowledged that he had started out as a Ben-Gurionist and somehow found his way into Labor’s opposing school led by Moshe Sharett. He said it wasn’t he who had changed but the world, the region, the reality.
Along this twisting trajectory, like a missile’s, he somehow embodied both security and peace, both the 1954 Lavon Affair and the Nobel Prize. He embodied both the Dimona nuclear reactor – maybe we should call it Shimona – and the opposition against the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. He embodied the war of choice against Nasser in the Sinai and the thwarting of Netanyahu’s arrogant and vain (in both senses) war on Iran.
In the 1948 war, he said, on the night of the attack on the right-wing contraband arms ship the Altalena, he lay between Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol “with a rifle in hand” to protect the leaders from Menachem Begin’s people. And on the eve of the 1967 war, he and Begin tried to oust Eshkol and bring back Ben-Gurion.
My first memory of Peres: Ramle, the summer of 1959, a movie theater, a meeting of Labor’s forerunner Mapai in the Knesset election campaign. He and Golda Meir, his bitter enemy, were together on stage.
My last memory of him: Jaffa, August 2016, Peres with his back to the sea, his face to the future. Golda and Ben-Gurion, Eshkol and Moshe Dayan, Rabin and Allon, Nasser and Anwar Sadat, King Hussein and Kennedy. All of them were buried and only Peres remained, striving to fulfill Bill Clinton’s prophecy: “He will eulogize us all.”
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