The best athletes get better and stronger as the game proceeds. The intensity of the match, the challenges presented during the competition, the internal drive that propelled them to the top of their sport – all of these drive those competitors to the greatness that eludes so many of their contemporaries.
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So, too, Shimon Peres. He was driven not by the personal glory or awards that accompany achievement – although these were well-deserved – but rather by the quest, that is, the aspiration to achieve something important and necessary for Israel and the Jewish people. His quests dominated his life, and he pursued them with determination, creative genius and optimism, a combination of traits usually absent in politicians.
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For some, those aspirations appeared to be the fantasies of a dreamer, divorced from reality. How many disparaged him for contemplating a new Middle East in which Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states would build together, rather than fighting wars and enduring violence that led nowhere? How many dismissed his vision of Israel as a leading power not only in military strength but also in technology, a vision we all take for granted now that Israel has become such a power?
Peres did not wait long in life to establish himself as both a visionary and as a builder. To him goes the credit at a very young age for building Israel’s defense industry infrastructure and for establishing an alliance with France in the 1950’s that provided Israel the arms it needed to prevail in the 1967 war.
His actions in this period were not without long-term implications – he also was one of the fathers of Israel’s nuclear program and an early proponent of settlement in the territories Israel occupied after the war.
But unlike so many others, who became intoxicated by military power and by the illusory dream of state sovereignty throughout the ancient homeland of Israel, Peres came to realize and dreamed a different dream, about a time when Israel’s power and presence would convince its Arab neighbors that peace was a far better option than war. Peres’ dream was much more Jabotinsky than Buber: his dream and vision of peace was predicated on the very strengths of Israel that he had made possible through his own efforts.
I first met Peres in the 1980’s, when he had already become convinced that Israel was strong enough to take risks for peace and that peace would be the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s security and well-being.
Meetings with him were exciting. To be sure, we often averted our gaze and rolled our eyes when he would come out with one of his famous sayings; indeed, we would collect them to see whether he had established a new record for pithy sayings in the course of a single meeting.
But that, of course, was a side-show, for the meetings always had him thinking and strategizing and planning ahead. There was no obstacle too formidable to overcome, and no dream too ambitious to realize. Peres was a true font of ideas, many of them ahead of his time.
I came to know Peres much more intimately during my time as U.S. Ambassador, when he was serving as foreign minister in Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet. To some, Peres and Sharon presented an unlikely couple; but I came to understand the common ambitions that drove these two pioneers: they had been there at the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, had done what was necessary to stand Israel on its own feet, and now were able to look to a different future.
In addition to the joy that any diplomat would feel when dealing with a larger than life, creative leader, I also admired Peres for a more mundane reason. Unlike some leaders, who surround themselves with sycophants and “yes-men”, Peres always sought out and hired the best and the brightest – the “blazers” of the 1990’s, Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, Avi Gil, Nimrod Novik and Amnon Neubach, and the ever-present Yona Bartal. I can recall the dynamic intellectual atmosphere of Peres’ office in the 1980’s, when I first interacted with him and his advisors. And that atmosphere lived on even as the advisors moved on; they never really left his orbit and he always valued their counsel and advice.
I continued to call on Peres after he was elected president and I had retired to the university. Sipping the best Israeli wines, relaxed, Peres thought out loud about ways to advance the prospects for peace or about the latest trends in technology. He was anxious to hear from me and from everyone he met, to hear new ideas or perspectives that he would then integrate into his own visions and plans.
How will Shimon Peres be remembered? Like the description of a diamond, the assessment of the many facets of his life and personality will flow from the perspective of the viewer. Some will criticize Peres for his early years as a security hawk, while others will be critical of his later years as a peace dove. Some will focus on his early support of settlements, while others will admire his vision and dream of peace with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres was all of these things and, as such, was a true embodiment of modern Israel. I will remember him as a great leader, thinker, visionary and friend who will be sorely missed. Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.
Daniel Kurtzer, a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, served as the United States Ambassador to Israel, 2001-2005.