Shi­mon Peres’s Last Words

A year af­ter the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s death, the publi­ca­tion of his last work re­veals that he is still sorely missed in Is­raeli and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Liam Hoare By Shi­mon Peres

There re­mains, just over a year af­ter his pass­ing, a void in Is­raeli pol­i­tics in the shape of Shi­mon Peres. The for­mer pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter was, as Amos Oz eu­lo­gized at his fu­neral in Septem­ber 2016, a trail­blazer who seemed con­stantly ahead of his time un­til the fu­ture ar­rived and vin­di­cated him. Present at Is­rael’s birth, and cen­tral to its po­lit­i­cal life for over half a

Peres em­bod­ied the adage that in or­der to be a realist, one must be­lieve in mir­a­cles.

cen­tury, Peres is one of a few Is­raelis who can truly claim to be a world­his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. No won­der he has proved ir­re­place­able.

Now “No Room for Small Dreams,” his slen­der, al­most wispy fi­nal book (writ­ten with as­sis­tance from the Demo­cratic speech­writer Dy­lan Loewe), comes as a re­minder of all that Is­rael has lost. It is his­tory as me­moir, if only by virtue of the fact that Peres has so of­ten made his­tory. Writ­ten in the fi­nal year of his life, the book nar­rows its fo­cus to key episodes in Peres’s life — from his im­mi­gra­tion to Pales­tine in 1934 to the as­sas­si­na­tion of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Th­ese sta­tions of his life em­pha­size Peres’s cen­tral­ity to the con­struc­tion of Is­rael. Most of th­ese, by now, are well known. Peres built up the mil­i­tary in the state’s early years (with help from the Czechs, the Team­sters and Jimmy Hoffa), and in the 1960s he cul­ti­vated Is­rael’s nu­clear pro­gram. He was de­fense min­is­ter in 1976 dur­ing the famed Op­er­a­tion En­tebbe, while in the early 1990s he rec­og­nized the po­ten­tial in backchan­nel talks tak­ing place in Oslo be­tween Is­raeli and Pales­tinian aca­demics.

Some of this ma­te­rial has al­ready been cov­ered in his other books: the 1995 me­moir “Bat­tling for Peace,” and the 2011 book “Ben Gu­rion: A Po­lit­i­cal Life,” a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with the late ed­i­tor of Ha’aretz, David Lan­dau. But some is­sues raised here, like Peres’s re­struc­tur­ing of the Is­raeli econ­omy as prime min­is­ter dur­ing the in­fla­tion­ary cri­sis of the mid-1980s, are not only too eas­ily for­got­ten but also have a cer­tain con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance, given Is­rael’s re­brand­ing of it­self as the “startup” na­tion (a cliché that Peres him­self uses, and one that should be re­tired).

More of­ten than not, the joy in “No Room for Small Dreams” is in the anec­do­tal de­tails. Peres first met his men­tor (and another world-his­tor­i­cal Is­raeli) David Ben-Gu­rion on a car ride to Haifa from Kib­butz Alu­mot. Ben-Gu­rion slept most of the way but awoke close to the Mediter­ranean and, with­out warn­ing, de­clared, “You know, Trot­sky was no leader.” Peres asked why, and BenGu­rion, red-faced and flus­tered, said: “‘No war, no peace?’ What is this? This is not a strat­egy. This is an in­ven­tion. Ei­ther peace and pay the price or war and take the risk — there is no other choice.” Ben-Gu­rion im­me­di­ately fell back to sleep.

Ben-Gu­rion is a dom­i­nant char­ac­ter in Peres’s life, side by side in mo­men­tous times. On the night the United Na­tions voted in fa­vor of par­ti­tion­ing Pales­tine, Ben-Gu­rion told Peres: “To­day they are danc­ing in the street. To­mor­row, they will have to shed blood in the street.” Peres was also close to Moshe Dayan, who had served as de­fense min­is­ter: “an equal and a men­tor, a man I deeply ad­mired.” In 1946, in re­sponse to Bri­tain’s egre­gious re­stric­tions on im­mi­gra­tion to Pales­tine by dis­placed Euro­pean Jews, Dayan sug­gested to Peres that “we burn down the camps where the Bri­tish were de­tain­ing Jews.”

In the late 1980s Peres forged a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with King Hus­sein of Jor­dan. They met in Lon­don for clan­des­tine ne­go­ti­a­tions — a path to peace ul­ti­mately nixed by then-prime min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir — at the home of the lawyer Vic­tor Mish­con. At the end of din­ner, Mish­con’s wife ap­peared to clear the ta­ble, at which point Hus­sein of­fered to do the dishes. “I could al­ready pic­ture the scene, two for­mer en­e­mies, stand­ing side by side as friends, the for­eign min­is­ter of Is­rael in charge of scrub­bing, the king of Jor­dan in charge of dry­ing.” She po­litely de­clined their of­fer.

At the same time, “No Room for Small Dreams” can­not help but fall into the traps set by the po­lit­i­cal me­moir genre. Though Peres writes that his re­la­tion­ship with Rabin was a “ri­valry [that] be­came a part­ner­ship,” the episode on En­tebbe makes clear who Peres be­lieves had the gump­tion and fore­sight to push for a dra­matic res­cue op­er­a­tion and who did not. (Some wounds never heal.) In lit­er­a­ture as in life, Peres’s wife, So­nia Peres, who died in 2011, re­mains some­thing of a hazy, in­com­plete fig­ure, the ro­man­tic life se­condary to the po­lit­i­cal one.

The se­lec­tion process in­her­ent in writ­ing an episodic me­moir also means that parts of Peres’s life fall by the way­side. It is a pity and a missed op­por­tu­nity, es­pe­cially given that this book was writ­ten in the twi­light of his life. “No Room for Small Dreams” would cer­tainly have been richer for hav­ing re­flected on some of Peres’s fail­ures and dis­ap­point­ments: the de­cline of the La­bor es­tab­lish­ment in the 1970s; the failed “dirty trick” to form a gov­ern­ment of left and ul­tra­Ortho­dox par­ties in 1990; the dread­ful shelling of Qana in 1996, dur­ing which more than 100 Le­banese civil­ians were killed, and his de­feat to Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu in that year’s elec­tion, when Is­rael went to sleep with Peres and woke up with Bibi.

The present, embattled prime min­is­ter is con­spic­u­ous in his ab­sence in this me­moir. This is es­pe­cially odd, given that Peres spent five years as Is­rael’s pres­i­dent, dur­ing which Ne­tanyahu was also in high of­fice. Yet he has no thoughts to of­fer about the man who has mas­tered Is­raeli pol­i­tics for a decade now: nei­ther his ide­ol­ogy nor their re­la­tion­ship. How­ever, surely Ne­tanyahu was in his mind when Peres writes that peace be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans will re­quire “rea­soned wis­dom” from “lead­ers who un­der­stand that Is­rael is strong enough to make peace.”

“He had, it seemed, two con­tra­dic­tory qual­i­ties,” Oz re­called of Peres, “on one hand, a deep re­spect for re­al­ity and its con­straints, and on the other hand, a fierce pas­sion to change that re­al­ity and the emo­tional ca­pac­ity to change him­self.” With­out Peres, what Is­rael is miss­ing, above all, is his par­tic­u­lar blend of op­ti­mism and re­al­ism that runs like a river through “No Room for Small Dreams.” Peres was some­body who em­bod­ied an oft-cited adage coined by his men­tor Ben-Gu­rion that, in or­der to be a realist, one must be­lieve in mir­a­cles.

It is this that marks Peres, with his nu­mer­ous achieve­ments not only on mat­ters of peace but on se­cu­rity and eco­nom­ics, too, in con­tradis­tinc­tion not only to the ghostly fig­ure of Ne­tanyahu but to the cur­rent Amer­i­can pres­i­dent as well. Not only Is­raeli pol­i­tics but also the pol­i­tics of the United States is cur­rently en­veloped by a stench of pes­simism that em­anates from the rot­ting head down­ward. Our lead­ers are not ac­tive but re­ac­tive, nos­tal­gic as op­posed to for­ward think­ing, and are guided by what was or what is rather than by what could be. “I don’t re­gret any of my dreams,” Peres con­cludes. “My only re­gret is not hav­ing dreamed more.”


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