Opinion

Shimon Peres, Outsider Who Wanted So Much to Be Loved

With his Yiddish accent, jacket and tie, he wasn’t seen as a real Israeli. In a state that invented the new Jew – sabra, tanned, a soldier, a daring adventurer – he was the old Jew, the exilic Jew.

Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan (right), Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres (in back) and Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon at an officers' course graduation ceremony, 1954.
GPO

Ultimately, he remained an outsider. In the days when the Palmach, IDF, the operations, the raids and the uniform defined heroes, Shimon Peres was an anti-hero. In a state where a hint of a foreign accent was thought shameful, Peres with his Yiddish accent, jacket and tie wasn’t seen as a real Israeli. In a state that invented the new Jew – sabra, tanned, a soldier, a daring adventurer – he was the old Jew, the exilic Jew. It was the bullets that never whistled past his ear that sealed his fate forever. In a state whose leadership he shared for three generations, he was an eternal outsider.

Read more on Shimon Peres: 1923-2016 | From nuclear pioneer to champion of peace | Shimon Peres, the eternal immigrant | Peres' quixotic battle for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Like every outsider, he yearned all his life to escape from that role. He wanted to be popular, liked and loved by everyone. How touching it was when he insisted on saying he had served as acting Navy commander – in April 1949 he was appointed “head of naval services” for a few months. Maybe this was why he was so preoccupied with defense, and devoted most of his life to dealing with defense-related issues, whether necessary or not.

How moving it was when, after one of his last meetings with Moshe Dayan in the latter’s Tzahala home, he asked me in the car, with shining eyes: “Did you see how long he sat with me?” Dayan was already terminally ill and Peres was someone who had already been everything and would go on being everything.

But Dayan was a hero and Israeli born, and Peres wasn’t. Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, who were to become his bitter rivals, were also heroes and Israeli-born – and Peres wasn’t. They knew it and he knew it. I believe he envied them.

The heroes of his generation didn’t appreciate him. Once he traveled to Tanganyika, today’s Tanzania, with Rabin. Rabin kept taking photos with his old fashioned camera and it annoyed Peres, who had no hobby outside his work. Peres thought that there, in Tanganyika Lake, the seeds of the bad blood between them were sown.

Former President of the State of Israel Shimon Peres Dec. 18, 2014.
AP

But the contempt that Rabin and Allon held for him was much greater than his contempt for them. From Rabin and Allon I heard words of loathing toward Peres that I never heard from him toward them. The boy who wanted love didn’t get it; it’s hard to think of anyone who liked him in those days. Some admired him, but few loved him. The outsider was loved mainly by the outside – abroad he was seen as a mythological Israeli figure. Maybe that’s why Peres never won an election here.

Maybe it was his endless craving for love that kept it out of his reach. After every election gathering, in the remotest party branch, with a dozen elderly functionaries in various stages of napping, he would ask in the car on the way back, late at night before falling asleep: “How did I do?” He needed support that badly.

It was perhaps one of the keys to understanding the man who had been everything – there isn’t a senior post he didn’t hold – yet who ended his long path with a feeling of almost, but not quite. Almost but not quite an unforgettable statesman, almost but not quite a national hero, almost but not quite entering history. The outsider who wanted everyone’s love thought he’d get it if only he pleased everyone. That’s why he never went all the way, didn’t fight against the majority, didn’t stand against the wind and didn’t come out against his own camp.

He thought the way to please was by compromising with everyone, and he ended up not pleasing anyone. He got his desire only in his last position – as president he’s supposed to please everyone, and in return the people gave him what he always wanted. The times had changed, the heroes had changed and with them the spirit of the times, and so the outsider finally became a legitimate heir.

I worked with him in the dark years of his career. He was then facing Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who abused him equally. There was no trace then to the later love he received from the masses; rotten tomatoes were hurled at him instead. And he stood like a rock in the face of hostility and contempt. The outsider who wanted so much to be loved.