Peres, the Penitent President

Self-righteous attempts to recast President Peres as anti-hero are blind to the stunning relevancy of his belated, but whole-hearted, repentance for his role in establishing post-'67 settlements and his re-embrace of the two-state solution.

Tomer Appelbaum

"In a place where penitents stand, perfectly righteous people cannot stand." This ancient rabbinical aphorism, full of wisdom, came to mind on reading some of the blistering attacks on Shimon Peres and his star-studded birthday celebration this week.

For the sake of the argument, let's categorize Gideon Levy ('President Peres' Evening of Lies') among the perfectly righteous – inasmuch as he and others like him immediately understood the grave dangers to Israel's very existence, and to its essential moral ethos, created by the post-Six Day War occupation.

They were right. But this record of rightness and righteousness clearly bestows no political discernment, no international sensitivity, no historic judgment, on Levy and his fellow-critics.

Don't they understand – perhaps their vaunted righteousness desensitizes them – that "the international community" was celebrating not Peres' longevity nor his indefatigable focus on nanotechnology, but rather his penitence?

Shimon Peres, as the embodiment of Israel's political mainstream ('the old elites') personified the pained, reluctant break from Eretz Yisrael. Granted, he does not voice explicit, unequivocal regret for equivocal positions that he and his political allies took in the early post-1967 period. But his every action and statement over the past three decades speak of just such regret.

"What's the greatest regret of your life in public service?" Aaron David Miller, the U.S. diplomat and scholar, asked Peres in an interview published this week in Foreign Policy."The failure of the London Agreement," Peres replied, "which I believed at the time could have been a catalyst for peace, security, and stability in the region." The 1987 London Agreement, thwarted by Yitzhak Shamir, would have meant, of course, the re-partition of Palestine between Israel and Jordan (King Hussein, representing Palestinian interests as well, would have resumed his sovereignty over the West Bank).

For the righteous, some by dint of their (relative) young age, those two words, Eretz Yisrael, perhaps never carried the profound, romantic pull that they did for Peres' generation of Zionism.

The required reaction today among leftist sophisticates is to roll one's eyes whenever Peres harps on, as he so often does, about the boldness and historic sagacity of Ben-Gurion's decision in 1948 to forgo parts of Eretz Yisrael in favor of an Arab entity. But it is worth remembering that powerful opposition to declaring a Jewish state came from the leftist Ahdut Avoda, whose leaders could not bear to acquiesce in partitioning Eretz Yisrael. Rather, they urged, continue with a British or international mandate in the hope that with time the Zionist claim to the whole of Palestine would overcome political and military resistance.

Not Gush Emunim; Ahdut Avoda - which included some of Ben-Gurion's oldest pioneer comrades.

For Ben-Gurion, demographic and democratic considerations took precedence over Eretz Yisrael. Some critics of 'the Old Man' find deviations from this approach in his writings and speeches before 1948. But when it came to the decisive moment Ben-Gurion took his stand, defended it, and triumphed.

For Shimon Peres at 90, as for many thinking Israelis in the peace camp, that choice needs to be made again, in the face of the post-1967 craving for Eretz Yisrael, rooted in religious fundamentalism and messianism.

Peres, and his idol Moshe Dayan, never really understood the source and strength of this sentiment and its potential domestic political significance. They thought they could harness and exploit it for their own misguided, anachronistic settlement schemes designed to bolster a 'benign occupation'.

Peres, in his later years, repented.

Belatedly, but wholeheartedly, he re-embraced the cruel, inexorable, pristine logic of Ben-Gurion's partition decision. In modern-day parlance, that logic is called the two-state solution.

Thatis what was being celebrated in Jerusalem this week. From Robert De Niro to the president of Rwanda, the world desperately hopes that the two-state solution is still valid, that the penitent Peres still represents the preponderance of Israeli politics. Naftali Bennett, with his praiseworthy candor, provided a timely, graphic confirmation of what the alternative would mean.

The nave nitpicking of Peres' righteous critics, who were exercised by the historical tendentiousness of the backdrop film, doesn't just miss the point. It blurs and weakens the message which should be going out loud and clear from the Presidential jamboree – to the world and to every household in Israel.

David Landau wrote, with Shimon Peres, "Ben-Gurion, A Political Life - Shimon Peres in Conversation with David Landau" (New York, 2011).