The 90th birthday celebrations for President Shimon Peres demonstrated the unique personality of a great statesman, precisely where he deviates from that popular Israeli title: Mr. Security. Peres, who was not a soldier, could have constituted a real alternative to the Israeli ethos, and his failure in this regard is tragic.
Last winter, I read an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel analyzing Israel's political system in light of the election then in the offing. The writer made just one mistake, which was the claim that Israelis love Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so much because he is "Mr. Security." It was an incorrect reading of our political acceptance of Netanyahu.
In contrast to the extinct strain of levelheaded generals and excellent executors such as Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan (the last of this breed probably being Ehud Barak), Netanyahu's background is based first of all on diplomacy and economics. Moreover, he is perceived by the Israeli public as a fearful and alarmist prime minister. These characteristics, which were the focus of the criticism he took from his rivals, are what led him to introduce the Holocaust into the national agenda.
Netanyahu does not project discretion, and he certainly doesn't give a sense of security - not even to himself. And he has not won such impressive personal popularity. He lost to Tzipi Livni in the 2009 election, and somehow won the last election thanks only to a safety net provided by Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party.
And still, like Peres - except with a lot more success - Netanyahu tirelessly strives to fulfill his vision. Thanks to the partnership with Lieberman, he guaranteed himself another term with a coalition that is a direct successor to the previous one.
Even if he reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he will bring it to a referendum - because Netanyahu is obliged to the right-wing mandate he received from his voters.
Peres and Netanyahu are similar in that both of them are primarily civilian prime ministers. The clear ideological line of Netanyahu's governments constitutes an important contribution to the conscious development of Israeli society, and therefore it needs an appropriate response from the left side of the political map.
That there is no statesman who will tirelessly strive to fulfill the left's vision for the State of Israel - a vision of Jewish settlement in Zion based not on (military) superiority but rather cooperation - is the clear failure of President Peres. It is also the burning failure of us all.
Netanyahu made the most impressive achievement since David Ben-Gurion when he reached the office of prime minister, because he sells a clear ideology. His ideology is that the Jews are on the edge of destruction, and Israel must tackle this emergency situation and preserve its biblical character.
Peres - despite his ambitions - will be remembered more than anything as the politician who came to ask for the public's trust but failed time after time, and never managed to win it.
Why did he not win our trust? Perhaps because, despite being perceived at times as a dove, Peres represented the politics of a qualified left.
He always passed on two issues: He sought the admiration of Arab leaders, including Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat, even though in practice he based Jewish superiority in the Middle East on the nuclear reactor at Dimona. He also pushed Rabin into the 1993 Oslo Accords, but that didn't prevent him from launching merciless missions in Gaza and southern Lebanon that wouldn’t have embarrassed generals like Ariel Sharon.
Peres is an eternal optimist. His dreams are larger than life, which looks ridiculous in a suspicious and violent society like ours. One of the wonderful scenes in Israeli politics happened when he turned to a furious audience at the Labor Party convention in 1997 and asked, "What, did I lose?" And everyone answered, "Yes!"
The heart of the matter stems from Netanyahu's understanding of Israel's transition to a sectorial politics of identities, and Peres' lack of understanding of this change that continues until today. Netanyahu plays the Jewish card of an ethnic minority dwarfed in a Muslim and Christian world ("a villa in the jungle"). Peres, by contrast, still imagines a melting pot of ethos based on ignoring and disconnecting from the splits ("the new Middle East").
Why can't the left talk directly about the Jews, Arabs and the Sephardim? Why is Peres always embarrassed? And what is he embarrassed about?
There are repercussions as well in setting foreign policy. None of Netanyahu's rivals in the last election declared that Israel must not attack Iran except as an act of self-defense. Why didn't we hear Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich's voice in this matter, or Tzipi Livni or even Yair Lapid?
The failure of Peres is not in his dream, but rather that he doesn't dare stand behind his dream.
The right dominates unchecked because it is perceived as the only side giving an appropriate and direct response to the event of the moment. Yet just as the right is impassioned, so is the left. Its values are simple values of truth: less to the strong (Jewish heterosexual men of a high socioeconomic standing) and more to the weak.
Were Peres himself a little more sure of what he is, if he had a little more confidence in his vision, the reality here would be different. Like a tragic hero, this was the shame that gnawed at the heart of his personality and left him chasing after respect.
The writer is a doctoral student in comparative Jewish literature in the European Forum at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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