Shimon Peres, who died last week at the age of 93, was a man of many public personas. In the eulogy he delivered in Jerusalem on Friday, Barack Obama described a wise and visionary elderly statesman who had dedicated his life to the lofty ideals of state building, economic development and the pursuit of peace. A dove.
Palestinian and Arab commentators described a militarist and a state-sanctioned murderer whose idea of state building was ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the pursuit of nuclear weapons and the deliberate bombing of Lebanese civilians. A hawk.
Meanwhile, Israeli commentators presented a third image: On the one hand they basked in the praise of all the glamorous world leaders who had come to pay their respects; but they also remembered that Peres was, for most of his long career a Forrest Gump-like figure who was somehow a part of every major event in Israel’s history, but who never gained wide public affection.
Peres was for decades widely regarded in Israel as a secretive technocrat who lacked charisma. In the characteristically blunt local style of speech he was often referred to as a “loser” because, while he was a government minister or a Member of Knesset for over six decades, he never won the popular vote on any of the occasions he ran for office. Not once. Given that Peres’s entire career, from 1952 through 2014, was spent in public service, including two brief stints as prime minister, that is a pretty incredible record.
He was prime minister from 1984-86 not because his party won a plurality of seats, but because he agreed to enter a coalition government with the party that did. He found himself acting prime minister again in 1995, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He even lost the Knesset vote for the ceremonial office of president when he was candidate for the first time, in 2000. Instead, his fellow Members of Knesset elected a man named Moshe Katsav from the rival Likud party. Seven years later, Katsav was forced to resign after he was charged with multiple counts of rape and sexual harassment in an enormous scandal that dominated the news cycle for months. Peres replaced Katsav, who was convicted on two counts of rape and is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
After the embarrassment of Katsav, Israelis seemed relieved to have Peres back. With his urbane European manners and worldly outlook, he was a welcome contrast to the unpolished Katsav. Plus, he was neither a rapist nor a sexual predator (though he was long-rumored to have had an extra-marital relationship with an Israeli diplomat). Peres had, in the intervening years, acquired a grandfatherly patina. The affection that came his way sprang partly from his being the only member of the founding generation of the state — i.e., the generation of socialist idealists who tilled the land by day — Peres was a shepherd and a kibbutz farmer in his youth — and read Marx by candlelight at night. He seemed to represent a time, perhaps made rosy by nostalgia for the past and fear of the future, when government officials lived modestly and followed a moral compass pointed toward a greater good.
But that ostensibly moral generation was also the one that carried out the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), exiling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the war of 1947-48 and refusing to allow them to return after the establishment of the state. Peres was a member of the Haganah, the pre-state militia that became the Israeli Defense Forces. He was instrumental in procuring essential armaments for that war. After the war, as Director General of the Ministry of Defense, he acquired the weapons and the nuclear reactor that made Israel the most powerful military force in the region.
For years, that socialist founding generation portrayed themselves as pursuers of peace who were forced to be warriors in self-defense. Somehow they managed to maintain that perception amongst the western democracies, despite having taken a leading role in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, which was not a defensive war; and despite the refusal of successive governments to prevent Israeli Jews from building settlements in the Palestinian territory the army had occupied since 1967.
But by the 1980s that peace-seeking, social-democratic image was visibly fraying. Israel was no longer a struggling state living under austerity with a centrally-planned economy, but a thriving and increasingly privatized, capitalist state that presided over broad swathes of territory under military occupation. When the First Intifada broke out in Gaza and the West Bank, Yitzhak Rabin, who was Defense Minister at the time, infamously confirmed that he had ordered his soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters. Peres, as Acting Prime Minister in 1996, presided over a military foray into southern Lebanon that included artillery bombardment of a UN compound in the village of Qana, which resulted in the deaths of 103 civilians.
The brief, hopeful period of the Oslo Accords (1993-1995) was really the highlight of Peres’s career. He helped negotiate the agreement, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. For a couple of years, it looked as though Israel had not only succeeded in arriving at a territorial compromise with the Palestinians, but also at brokering peace with the Arab states. Israelis had high hopes for peace and normalization, and Peres was their cheerleader.
Even after Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultra nationalist in 1995, Peres continued to pursue the Oslo agreement. He became Acting Prime Minister for seven months, but then lost the majority to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud in what became his final failed attempt to win an election.
And then he went on to re-invent himself as a reformed hawk turned dove. It’s really thanks to his charismatic personality and his decades of experience in international diplomacy that he was able to cultivate his image — not to mention the rich friends who financed his eponymously named Peace Center in Jaffa and his luxurious annual President’s Conference. He never stopped speaking of peace, but in tangible terms he did not do anything to achieve it.
What was supposed to be Peres’s greatest achievement turned out to be a huge failure. The Oslo Accords are dead, and so is the two-state solution. The way things look right now, Israel is rapidly becoming a quasi-democratic liberal authoritarian state, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, with a large disenfranchised minority living under military occupation. Peres knew at the end of his life that the state he had dedicated himself to building was teetering at the edge of a precipice. So did all those international leaders who had gathered for his funeral. In many ways, they had come to say goodbye not only to the man whose life and career spanned the life of the state he helped found, but also to the state itself as they wanted to know it — a place that had, as President Obama said, “planted the seeds of democracy” in its pursuit of “a better world.”
For all his flaws, failures, crimes, misjudgments and misdemeanors, Peres was motivated by ideals that went far beyond self-interest. Looking at the senior Israeli politicians sitting in the front rows at his funeral, it was impossible to imagine those foreign leaders bothering to come back for any of them.