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

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • GREER FAY CASHMAN

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. ■

(Yossi Aloni/Maariv)

SHI­MON PERES lived his life al­ways look­ing for­ward.

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