The Greatness of Shimon Peres

Avi Shilon
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Peres delivers a statement at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday Sept. 30, 2013. Credit: AP
Avi Shilon

With the crisis in the talks with the Palestinians looming in the background, the agreement signed in London between King Hussein of Jordan and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, this week 27 years ago, is beginning to shine rather brightly. Like the London Agreements of 1934, which were put together by David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky in an attempt to bridge the differences between the Revisionists and the labor camp, this London Agreement was also not implemented.

The first London Agreement could have changed the path of the domestic Zionist movements, while the second could have almost created enormous change in Israel’s foreign relations. But London did not wait for us, to paraphrase singer Chava Alberstein.

The regret over missing out because of the rejection of the London Agreement — which was mainly intended to transfer control of the territories to Jordan within the framework of a confederation with Israel, known as the “Jordanian option” — is not just a matter of mourning the past. The seeds of the ideal future solution are planted in this agreement. As opposed to the claim that it ignored the aspirations of the Palestinians, Jordan actually thought it could take the PLO’s status into account. That is why the idea is still fundamentally brilliant: Instead of fighting over the division of the land into two countries, it is possible to expand the contested areas to the east of the Jordan River to create a confederation of three states that are linked in an umbrella government.

In the not too distant future, when the weight of nationalist movements weakens, a confederation will be seen as a simple and natural solution to relieve existing disagreements: The Palestinians will have a state whose security is also dependent on the military strength of Israel; Jerusalem will be the joint capital in practice; the settlements will remain where they are; the refugees will be allowed to return to Palestine; and the Jordanians will not fear that a Palestinian state will upset their rule.

The London Agreement affair, with all its advantages and missed opportunities, is also the essence of Peres’ story. The radical left and right do not like him, since he is at once one of the fathers of the settlements and one of those battling them. But in this Peres embodies the unavoidable twists in the Zionist path — from the beginning, an anticolonialist movement that fought for national independence, but also a movement whose acts bore colonialist traits. Given this background, Peres, like Ben-Gurion, maneuvered all his life: between right and left, defense and diplomacy, socialism and the economic program of 1985, which saved the economy but also paved the way for privatization and the strengthening of capitalism in Israel.

As a rule, to understand Peres you need to understand his relationship with Ben-Gurion. Since the 1970s the image of a subversive and a loser has stuck to Peres. But until the dissolution of Ben-Gurion’s Rafi party, Peres was one of the politicians most devoted to his teacher and master (even though he always knew how to look out for himself). Only when the strength of the founding father failed him did Peres spread his wings. It seems he allowed himself to pursue his own goals since he felt he’d given his loyalty to a figure who had nurtlegacyured him with a proper code of leadership.

Gidi Weitz recently described Peres as a meddler with a “backwards compass” (Haaretz in Hebrew, March 24). Peres, a person who seems as though nothing human is foreign to him, grew up in politics and has never flinched from it. His fears for his political image also prevented him from fighting for the implementation of the London Agreement and the dismantling of the unity government after Yitzhak Shamir thwarted the pact. This was one of his greatest mistakes. But precisely because of this combination of the ability to see far ahead and the tendency to get down into the muck of politics, he will be remembered in history as the most fascinating and progressive leader we have ever had, after Ben-Gurion.

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