Was Shimon Peres a Man of Peace?

If Israel is on the verge of a moral abyss, then Peres had a part in that. If it’s a country en route to apartheid, he was a founding partner. The truth must be told: Shimon Peres wanted peace, but never saw Palestinians as equal to Jews.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Shimon Peres at Aipac Washington, march 4, 2012.
Shimon Peres at Aipac Washington, march 4, 2012.Credit: Mohe Milner, GPo
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

He was my private political instructor for four years, day and night. He didn’t act like a teacher, but I learned a lot from him, about what to do, but also what not to do. I was very young, and he was already Shimon Peres. We parted with mixed feelings.

He was the last of the old-time Israelis. What’s “Israeli” to you? Once it was Shimon Peres. Now Miri Regev represents Israeliness much more than he does. But when Israel still wanted to be portrayed as a peace-seeking nation, it had Peres.

Read more on Shimon Peres: Peres pursued peace for sake of Israel's values, and Palestinians' dignity | Hawk to dove, pro-settlements to pro-peace: Shimon Peres was it all | 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 | Drop the kitsch: Shimon Peres had a dark side, too | Peres, 1923-2016: an interactive timeline

When it was still important for it to be accepted – Peres. When saying one had been a shepherd was still respectable – Peres. When speaking of books was still admired – Peres. When at least a semblance of enlightenment and modesty was still important – Peres. It was a different country. He died yesterday, but that Israel died long ago. It’s not certain that it was as lovely as we tend to describe it.

His Israel was a country of great achievements, but also of shadows and lies. One cannot crown him a wondrous figure, as the whole world is doing now, without also describing his country. If Peres was a hero of peace, then the State of Israel is a peace-seeking country. Is anybody buying that? One cannot call it an occupier, a dispossessor, a pariah, while calling Peres a giant of peace.

If Israel is on the verge of a moral abyss, then Peres had a part in that. If it’s a country en route to apartheid, he was a founding partner.

The state was Peres and Peres was the state, at least to some extent. He was a fixture of the landscape for all those years and in all those positions. Look at him and you see us.

We so want peace but are doing so little to achieve it. He was the country’s pretty face but also misleading. Israelis are remembering him fondly now; how wonderful it is that we had such a man. Those world leaders who will be coming to his funeral tomorrow will also effusively praise his contribution to peace.

But what peace? The man gave us the Dimona reactor and the 1956 Sinai Operation, Upper Nazareth and Ofra, Israel Military Industries and Israel Aerospace Industries – so how much peace (and justice) did he really bring, and how much occupation and settlements?

There’s no doubt that he wanted peace and worked for it. But he stopped halfway by ignoring the settlement issue during the Oslo process, and there are no half-paths to peace. It’s not just the right that’s responsible for that failure.

He was an impressive man. His span of knowledge was broader than most of his contemporaries, as was his personal charm. We never had a more curious and stylish politician, nor a better conversationalist. I’ll go further; he was also an honest man, certainly no less than his colleagues. And no one could talk about peace the way he did; even Mahatma Ghandi spoke about it less.

Back in the late 1970s, Peres was already saying in every speech, “It’s impossible to rule over another people against its will.” It moved me then. But during the ensuing decades when he was at the helm, that sentence remained in party speeches. What did he do to end the occupation? He contributed a great deal to Israel – to its security, to its prosperity – but not to its justice. So just don’t say he was a man of peace.

He wanted peace. Who doesn’t? But the truth must be told, even in difficult moments; he never perceived the Palestinians as equal to Jews, and certainly not as having equal rights.

After years in the company of David Ben-Gurion perhaps it was too difficult to formulate a different approach. Human rights and international law didn’t interest him, and Palestinian suffering didn’t move him.

When U.S. President Barack Obama praises him tomorrow as a man of peace, one will get the sneaking suspicion that he may be Peres’ spitting image. How pleasant it is to praise Peres.

Because above all else, Peres was the champion of the Israeli desire to “go with and feel without.” Of saying how terrific we are. Now there isn’t even anyone left to say it.

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