The Chances of Shimon Peres

Battling for Peace: A Memoir

by Shimon Peres
Random House, 350 pp., $25.00
Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres; drawing by David Levine


Shimon Peres first met David Ben-Gurion in 1946, when Peres had just been nominated secretary of the Labor movement’s youth movement; he was, in his own words, “the young unknown.” Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency, already “a legend.” Peres had to get to Haifa. There weren’t many cars in Palestine at the time, so it had been arranged that Peres would drive to Haifa with Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion was silent throughout the journey. On the outskirts of Haifa Ben-Gurion suddenly turned to Peres and said: “You know, Trotsky was no statesman.” Peres asked why. “Because of his concept of no-peace-no-war,” Ben-Gurion said.

That’s not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention. A statesman has to decide one way or the other: to go for peace and pay the price or to make war, knowing what the risks and dangers are. Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect, but he became the leader of Russia because he was decisive. He decided on peace and paid the heavy price that peace required.

Ben-Gurion was alluding to the 1917 peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between revolutionary Russia and Germany. Bukharin urged that the Russian revolutionaries go on with war and die “sword in hand.” Lenin was for peace at any price. Ben-Gurion could sympathize with either man, but not with Trotsky, who wanted neither war nor peace. This, for Ben-Gurion, was a “Jewish invention.”

The bitter historical irony is that the legacy of Ben-Gurion himself to Israel was the “Jewish invention” of neither war nor peace with its neighboring Arab countries. He was able only to arrange cease-fire and armistice agreements which erupted every decade into wars—in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982.

Rabin and Peres attempted to extract Israel from the state of no-peace-no-war. They were both ready to pay a heavy personal price for doing so. Rabin lost his life, and Peres has tied his political future to carrying out the peace agreement with the Palestinians. He may soon pay the price on election day, May 29.

Peres describes his relations with Ben-Gurion in Battling for Peace, his recently published autobiography. But we get a fuller account of his early years in the authorized biography written by Matti Golan and published in Hebrew in 1984.1 What is clear from both books is that, for Peres, Ben-Gurion set the standard for what counts as an “historical achievement” in Israel. He also did so for his disciples Dayan and Rabin, and for his adversaries—notably Begin. To “make history,” i.e., to do something that will be remembered as having secured Israel’s future, has been a conscious concern of Israel’s leaders; and to do so, a leader must compete with Ben-Gurion’s greatest accomplishment, the founding of the state itself. To make history now would be to finish Ben-Gurion’s unfinished business, settling Israel’s relations with the Arabs. Menachem Begin, for his part, wanted…

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