A lifetime of service
Published a year after his death, Shimon Peres’s autobiography looks back at decades of the veteran statesman’s incredible accomplishments
Shimon Peres regularly used to say, “We didn’t dream big enough.” So it is quite fitting – and no surprise – that the autobiography released right before the first anniversary of the former president’s death is titled No Room for Small Dreams. It was my privilege, during the seven years of his presidency, to cover the activities of the president for The Jerusalem Post. Peres was a marvelous raconteur in Hebrew, English and French with a never-ending stock of anecdotes about people whose lives he had entered or who had entered his.
Thus it was with a sense of nostalgia and delighted anticipation that I began to read. There was a loving preface by his children Tsvia, Yoni and Chemi in which they quoted their father telling them to count their dreams and measure them against their achievements. “If you have more dreams than achievements, you are still young,” he told them.
But it was difficult to hear Peres’s voice in the book’s chapters, instead finding a sanitized, edited and restyled version of the way the legendary statesman used to speak – at least in English.
To someone who never knew Peres, the book will be a fascinating story about a boy from a village on the Polish-Russian border who became a pioneer in the Land of Israel, founded and lived in kibbutzim, was the architect of Israel’s defense industry, was on first-name terms with many of the world’s leaders, was Israel’s most veteran public servant, and the only person so far to serve as prime minister and later president.
But for someone who did know Peres and faithfully reported what he said regardless of the language in which he said it, there is a lack of authenticity in the language, albeit not in the story.
It is very touching for instance, to read how – after decades of rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential people in the world, having a wardrobe of designer suits and shirts, traveling in disguise as well as openly and officially to literally dozens of countries, including those hostile to Israel, and being involved in a myriad of projects – Peres could still remember his first encounter with an orange. It was a fruit unknown in his shtetl, and one that inspired both curiosity and awe.
During his term as president, he would marvel almost with the wonder of a child, how different life was for him as
a statesman to what it had been when he was a politician. As a legislator, a minister and a prime minister, he had frequently been rebuffed. People often refused even the simplest of requests. Yet when he was president, nobody said “no” to him.
For much of his career, Peres was ridiculed. Initially his ideas were shot down by political, military and scientific experts. After that it was Peres himself who was subjected to derision. He could not defend himself because so much of what he did was secret, and so he remained silent.
Yet founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion continued to have faith in his abilities, respected his fertile and creative mind and in the final analysis – despite any early reservation he may have nursed – went along with most of Peres’s ideas. This was much to the chagrin of Golda Meir, who resented Peres as a young upstart and treated him with disdain – even when circumstances dictated that they work hand in glove.
Moving largely in chronological order, readers are introduced early on to the Ben-Shemen Youth Village where boys and girls were trained to be farmers, soldiers and ardent Zionists.
“It was a place that turned children into leaders,” wrote Peres, and indeed many people in leadership positions throughout the history of modern Israel are graduates of Ben-Shemen.
It was in Ben-Shemen that he met the barefooted Sonia Gelman who captured his heart at first sight, but it took him somewhat longer to capture hers. In the book he described her as his first and only love. They married and had three children, but parted ways when he became president. She wanted him to come and spend the twilight years of his life with her, but Peres wanted to take on the presidency as a final act of fealty to the Zionist cause. And so, after a marriage of six decades there was a parting of the ways with no reconciliation. Sonia Peres died before her husband completed his term. She was buried in her beloved Ben-Shemen. Peres never stopped loving her, and this comes through quite clearly.
Peres recalls his first meeting with Ben-Gurion, who became his lifelong mentor, in the back seat of a car traveling from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Peres, then the leader of Hanoar Ha’oved (Working Youth), had wondered over and over what they would talk about and had rehearsed several possible scenarios. None of them eventuated. Ben-Gurion gave a nod, then turned his head and went to sleep.
Here and there, the book offers interesting tidbits of Zionist trivia such as the fact that when he attended the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel after World War II, Ben-Gurion not only stayed at the same hotel as Herzl, but slept in the same room.
One of the key lessons that Peres learned from Ben-Gurion at that congress was that no matter how angry or frustrated you might be, it’s still important to listen to the other side and to continue with the debate. It was a lesson that served him well in the years ahead, and he remembered it often.
Acknowledging that he was perceived by many as a man of contradictions, Peres wrote that although he had been known for the past 40 years as one of Israel’s most vocal doves, singularly focused on peace, the first two decades of his career had been spent not in the pursuit of peace but in preparation for war. Peres added that while it was generally assumed that he had changed from a hawk to a dove, it was not he who changed, but the situation that changed.
His recounting of the day on which Ben-Gurion read the proclamation of independence is very moving in its description of a centuries-old dream becoming a reality, and the joy of the occasion dimmed both by the knowledge of what had been lost and what would be lost in the war to come.
When Peres went to America in 1949, it was ostensibly to catch up with his studies. That was his nighttime occupation, but by day he was busy procuring arms. Due to his inexperience, he made many mistakes, and did not hesitate to reveal some of them in his memoir. For instance, he traveled to Cuba to cut a deal with some arms traders and was told to come to a certain hotel at 12. He presented himself promptly at noon, and was denied entry. It transpired that the Cubans were night owls when it came to transactions of this kind, and the meeting was not at noon but at midnight.
Peres encountered severe opposition to his proposal that Israel set up its own defense industry. Even Ben-Gurion was doubtful at the beginning until Peres took him to see the tiny airplane rebuilding and refitting plant that Al Schwimmer, an American who had been a volunteer in the War of Independence, had set up in California. Ben-Gurion was impressed and declared that it must be transferred to Israel as soon as possible.
Peres, who also had a lifelong romance with France and French culture, was totally ignorant of the French language and French customs when he first set foot in the country, but was nonetheless treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. But possibly the main reason for his love for France was rooted in its assistance in the construction of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. The chapter on Israel’s nuclear capability is among the more fascinating in its exercise in ambiguity. Like so many ideas proposed by Peres, it was initially met with scorn by almost everyone except for Ben-Gurion. Peres saw it as a vehicle for peace and a deterrent against war, but few people understood this.
Equally riveting is the chapter on the 1976 Entebbe Rescue Operation, which to all intents and purposes was a hopeless endeavor. But Peres, who was then defense minister, acted in accordance with one of Ben-Gurion’s mottoes, that when an expert tells you it can’t be done, find another expert. Peres went into great detail in recalling the agonizing period of trying to come up with a viable plan. Always a team player, he consulted the brightest strategists in the IDF and gave credit where it was due.
Similarly, when tasked with saving and transforming Israel’s crumbling economy, he surrounded himself with the best economists from Israel and the United States, and relied most on the economic strategy of Stanley Fischer, who in later years became governor of the Bank of Israel.
Peres endured several defeats and disappointments in his lifetime, but generally preferred to come up with new ideas and look forward rather than brood over what was or what might have been. The notable exception was when prime minister Yitzhak Shamir scuttled the peace agreement that Peres had reached with King Hussein of Jordan at a clandestine meeting in London. For Peres, it was a wound that never quite healed.
In historical terms, the book finishes with Peres as prime minister following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. There are no chapters relating to his post-prime ministerial career, nor to his achievements as president, or to the influence that he still wielded when no longer in office.
Despite the absence of his voice, the book is a riveting tale of a highly creative man of many talents who pursued his goals regardless of all and any challenges that confronted him. But for those readers who may know more about him than appears in the book, there may be an element of frustration in pondering those chapters of his life that for whatever reason have been overlooked. ■
SHIMON PERES lived his life always looking forward.