Israel’s Shimon Peres died on Wednesday, at the age of 93. His legacy is as controversial as that of Israel’s.
Acclaimed by some, reviled by others, he arrived in Palestine — at the time a British protectorate — at the age of 10. The arc of the young refugee’s life would grow to embody the life of Israel; its settlements, its nascent place in the world and its inherent contradictions.
He achieved global plaudits upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1993 Oslo Accords, alongside his counterparts, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
But he was also a figure of controversy.
At turns he was an international peacemaker, but he also played the role of unrepentant hawk till the end. As four children were killed on a beach during a ferocious assault on Gaza, Peres was clear: “It was an area that we warned would be bombed. And unfortunately they didn’t take out the children,” he said.
Born on August 21, 1923, Peres began his life in the small town of Vishnyeva in Poland — now Belarus. His relatives were murdered during the Holocaust, some burned alive in the town’s synagogue. No mercy was shown to the town’s 2,000 inhabitants; not one Jewish resident remains there.
As a refugee in a sacred land, he was always the outsider who had to work harder than everyone else. It was a duality that was never quite explained, as he grew to become the chief protagonist on Israel’s newly-fashioned stage.
In 1945, Peres married Sonya Gelman. They had three children; sons Yoni and Nehemia, and a daughter, Tsvia Valdan. Sonya was the love of his life, he said upon her passing.
But the early identity of the man gave little indication of what he would later become.
SECURITY AND THE MAKING OF A NATION
In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, a paramilitary organisation that would become the heart of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Haganah was controversial. To the founding fathers of Israel, it carved out a future for the frontier state. It set out to protect Israeli farms and kibbutzim, or socialist communes.
It was at the Haganah that he met David Ben-Gurion, who would later become Israel’s first prime minister. As a youngster, Ben-Gurion’s mentorship shaped Peres’ swift rise through Israel’s ranks.
But the group also carried out some of Israel’s worst excesses. It was the militia that drove Palestinians from their villages from 1947 to 1949, to make way for modern day Israel. Peres himself viewed the Palestinian people as a demographic threat, a position ill at odds with his image as a peacemaker. To this day, the Palestinian sense of loss is writ large across the collective memory of its people.
In the Haganah, and in later life, Peres anchored Israeli security — transforming the landscape of the nation.
Israel had become a Jewish nation that would not rely on others for protection — it would protect itself.
And as Israel’s fortunes grew, so did Peres’. He is the only person to have held five of the most senior posts in the Israeli government, defence minister, finance minister, foreign minister, president and prime minister. He spent 47 years in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
Throughout his life as a power broker, his effectiveness as a statesman was firmly constrained by circumstances and the climate within which he operated.
How much was Peres able to change? And did he merely pander to the idea of change, to appease his critics? His successors face the same challenge that he once did: a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Peres will be best remembered for his role in the secret negotiations that took place between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Norway in 1993.
The Oslo Accords set the framework for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The signing of the accords shifted Israel's policies toward the PLO from one extreme to the other.
Israel now recognised the PLO as the representative body of the Palestinian people and announced its decision to open negotiations within the framework of a Middle East peace process.
Arafat, as the Palestinian representative, adopted a new policy recognising Israel's right to exist in peace and security.
Despite his efforts towards the peace process. Peres was instrumental in plans to expand Israel, by encouraging Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Settlers were once described as “colonists” by The New York Times, reflecting the deep sentiment against ostensibly large-scale land-grabs.
One such tool was Article 123, a law that was designed to declare Palestinian land as part of a closed military zone, its owners denied access.
That policy of appropriation laid the foundation for Israel to grow its borders in contravention of international law.
Peres was a man of many facets. His life as an arms trader arguably changed the nature of Israel.
At the height of international condemnation against South Africa, Peres attempted to sell nuclear weapons to the apartheid state.
But he is also remembered as an architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, that today is said to have at least 200 nuclear warheads pointed at Iran.
ISRAEL AND ITS ARAB NEIGHBOURS
Peres sought to secure Israel’s standing with her Arab neighbours — no easy feat after the Nakba, or the “Catastrophe” in the Palestinian lived experience.
A year after the Oslo accords, Yikzak Rabin, the then-Israeli Prime Minister signed a peace accord with Jordanian King Hussein. The treaty with Jordan established mutual recognition between that country and Israel.
Other treaties with Egypt and Turkey were hard won. But securing peace was often in direct conflict with the sentiment of the street.
Israel’s left leaning daily, Haaretz, perhaps best summed up Peres’ life when they said that tragically he attained the status he yearned for, that of the nation’s elder statesman, only as president in his mid-eighties, when Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin were dead and Ariel Sharon was in a deep coma.
“That was when the politicians and the generals and the spy-chiefs came seeking his advice and for the first time in his long career he was as popular at home as had long been abroad. Only when he was the last man standing, did the young immigrant Shimon Peres finally arrive in the promised land.”