Opinion |

Shimon Peres' War-making Lost Us the Peace Process

An Israeli election straight after Rabin's assassination would have been one of those historic inflection points towards peace. But Peres failed to make that call. Instead, he started a war.

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A row of election posters in Tel Aviv showing Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, May 13, 1996.
A row of election posters in Tel Aviv showing Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, May 13, 1996.Credit: AP

The Oslo Peace Process, which the late Shimon Peres helped to draft, seemed to so many Israelis and Palestinians to be one of those inflection points in history. Like in Ian McEwan’s fiction, that moment when "something happens" — an intrusion, an impulsive action — that changes life forever. Usually, in private as in public life, there are opportunities for corrections, but sometimes the event precipitated by a single action is irreversible.

Such moments in modern history come easily come to mind: the assassinations of Lincoln, Kennedy and Martin Luther King; on the "plus side," the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Oslo seemed to inaugurate a peace process that couldn’t be stopped; the beginning of the bumpy road towards prosperity, peace and independence for the two peoples living in the Holy Land.

It is now customary for most people on all sides of the conflict to belittle the importance of the two years from the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1993 to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

But as one who lived through those years in Jerusalem, I can say that there was a perceptible change in the very air we breathed. Yes, the Oslo process was flawed, but its real power was demonstrated precisely by the enormous opposition it generated, which culminated in the murder of the Prime Minister by a kind of Jewish jihadist.

Shimon Peres, then-prime minister, talking to soldiers during Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, 1996.Credit: Ofer Yizhar

But then with the Rabin assassination something miraculous happened: The overwhelming response of the people of Israel — Arabs and Jews, young and old, Orthodox and secular — an outpouring of grief and shock. I remember standing on the railroad tracks in Baka, Jerusalem, watching the trains entering the station with people hanging out of windows and doors, pilgrims from all over the country who had come to express their last respects and to share in the public mourning.

That moment should have been one of those dramatic inflection points that turns the tide of history: Had he stood for election in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Shimon Peres could have won in a landslide.

Instead, he instigated another war: Israel's 16-day "incursion" into Lebanon, the so-called "Operation Grapes of Wrath." Pundits will tell you that he wanted to win an election on his own terms and merits, not on the coattails of the slain leader Rabin. They will tell you that this little military adventure against Hezbollah was meant to secure quiet on Israel’s northern border.

But what it really achieved was the loss of Peres’ left flank, from peace-hungry Jews to the Israeli Arabs who had been mobilized to drive the peace process forward. So many of our cohort expressed their protest in the subsequent elections by inserting a blank slip, known in Hebrew as a "petek lavan," in the ballot box.

And that, my friends, was how Shimon Peres lost a fateful election to Benjamin Netanyahu and bequeathed us the nightmare we are living through.

I know about all that Peres achieved throughout a long life of good intentions and good deeds. I also know about his nefarious role in supporting the settlers when they were but a handful of cowboys who could have easily been suppressed. But when Peres lost the election in 1996 after that “little war,” we lost the peace — possibly forever.

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