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A Hero in His Own Words

Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Arnaldo Momigliano, the great historian of late antiquity, once said: “When I was young, scholars wrote history and gentlemen wrote biography.” Who, then, wrote, or writes, autobiographies? At best, the spiritually tormented and temperamentally restless, like Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or great artists such as Pablo Neruda, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Simone de Beauvoir, or adventurers such as Ármin Vámbéry, the Hungarian savant and founder of modern Turkology. At worst, a host of lesser figures, mediocre literati and self-apologists whose names we can happily forget. Somewhere in between these two poles lie women and men who have led unusually interesting lives, some of them, like Shimon Peres, in the public eye as well as in the shadows where consequential decisions are made, for better or for worse. The particular penumbra cast by Peres and described in No Room for Small Dreams, a rather slim memoir written shortly before his death last year, reveals, like all penumbras, mixed patches of light and darkness.

The grandiose title—presumably a gesture toward Goethe’s “Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men”—prepares the reader for the heroic mode in which this book is written; and there is never any doubt about who the hero is. Peres, not a modest man, seems to have been present at every critical junction in the history of Israel, and he has no reluctance about claiming to have provided, at such moments, the (only) voice of reason, daring, and positive vision. This claim is particularly salient in the central chapter, written like a thriller, on the Entebbe raid in 1976, when Israeli soldiers flew to Uganda, killed the hijackers of an Air France jet, and freed their hostages. In these pages Peres’s perennial rival, or nemesis, Yitzhak Rabin, is portrayed as hesitant and supine in contrast with the decisive role of Guess Who.

Occasionally these disclosures come with unconventional meditative reflections. Thus, in the Entebbe chapter, we learn that Peres managed, with great effort, to overcome the despair that had overwhelmed everyone else in the defense establishment about finding a military solution to the hijacking:

Doubt had given way to determination among the group. Even the most skeptical among them refused to let the unlikeliness of a solution prevent them from seeking one out. This was the essential cognitive breakthrough—something I relentlessly attempted to inspire during the most challenging moments of my career. Far too often, especially under stress…, we turn inward and close down.

Let us give credit where credit is due. The man was like that. That he made signal contributions to the infant state is incontrovertible. There were also some terrible mistakes, not exactly accidental. But before we get into that, there is more to be said about the now anachronistic mental world within which this long career took place.

It’s there in every sentence of this book. We find ourselves mired in an endless set of melodramatic crises during which the very existence of the state, and of the Jewish people, always hangs in the balance. This theme is an ancient one, fondly nurtured by the Jews for the last two millennia. The Passover Haggadah says it explicitly: “In every generation they come at us to exterminate us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” Needless to say, the Jews have good reason to recite these sentences once a year. The problem lies not in the historical record that gives them credibility but in the emotional and cultural investment in the idea, or perhaps the romance, of life on the edge of extinction, and in the political consequences of that idea in a generation for which the threat has vastly diminished, perhaps even disappeared.

There is no existential threat to Israel today apart from the one of our own making. You don’t have to take my word for it; one hears it regularly from Ehud Barak, who ought to know, and he’s hardly alone in the Israeli security establishment in this respect. However, the danger of our own making may well suffice to finish us off. Benjamin Netanyahu loses no opportunity to scream to the world that Israel is on the brink of catastrophe; without such certainty, his entire inner world would probably collapse. Israel does, of course, have enemies, as do other states. It’s the narrative of continuous, and somehow delectable, do-or-die romance that needs to be examined or, rather, superseded by something better.

For it is one thing to say that the Jews needed, and probably still need, a state, and that the history of the first half of the twentieth century proved this theorem; or, simply stated, that the early Zionist analysis of what lay in store for the Jews of Europe was unfortunately all too right, and a real and practical solution was urgently required. It is another thing to claim, as voices both inside and outside the Israeli government do frequently, that the Zionist enterprise necessarily involved the subjugation, disenfranchisement, and potential expulsion of that other people still living on their lands to the west of the Jordan River. Peres, let it be said, did not share the latter view. But he lived inside, indeed in some sense embodied, the romantic tale of Jewish rebirth, including some of the darker aspects of that tale.

Meanwhile, the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian land on the West Bank proceeds apace: in Area C alone—the approximately 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli legal and military control—well over half of all land reserves have by now been either settled by Israelis or earmarked for future settlement.1 Netanyahu has recently proclaimed that these settlements are there “for all eternity.” It’s still possible that eternity will turn out to be shorter than expected, but each passing day pushes Israel further toward either South African–style full-fledged apartheid in the occupied territories or, eventually, a single state with a Palestinian majority. Sometimes, like many of my activist friends, I think the latter possibility, or some form of confederated system, is the best we can hope for. But in either case, we have the end of the democratic, self-contained, and independent Jewish state. As Peres says toward the end of his book, “The future of the Zionist project depends on our embrace of the two-state solution.”

He didn’t always think so. Peres is one of the handful of Israeli politicians and public figures who were able to change their minds about something important (the former president Ezer Weizman was another). I once heard Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow, insist in a public lecture that her late husband had never even once changed his mind about anything, as if that were a great human virtue. Inhabiting a mythic cosmos tends to reduce reality to a manageable set of indubitable equations. It was within just such a mental world that Peres lent his weight, as minister of defense in Rabin’s government, to the creation of some of the first Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This happened during the Hanukkah holiday of 1975, when a group of messianic-mystical Israeli nationalists, known at that time as Gush Emunim, took over the old Turkish railway station at Sebastia in the north-central West Bank and declared it liberated Jewish territory. Peres flew in by helicopter and told the would-be settlers they would have to leave until the government decided on the conditions of their settling there. In the next few days, in the face of considerable resistance from Rabin, among others, Peres was instrumental in negotiating those conditions, still remembered as the “Sebastia compromise.”

That was the beginning. Initially, twenty-five families were allowed to take up residence inside the nearby military base at Kadum, which developed into what is today the large settlement of Kedumim. Other early settlements, such as Elon Moreh and Ofra, as well as Jewish nuclei in and around the city of Hebron, soon popped up, and the legal ploy of releasing so-called state lands in the occupied territories for Jewish settlement, sanctioned at first by the military courts and then by the Supreme Court, became standard practice.2 Today the West Bank is dotted with many hundreds of such settlements, which remain the primary obstacle to any possible agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. All of these settlements are illegal under international law, and many of them—those not sanctioned by explicit government decisions—are illegal under Israeli law, not that this matters much in practice. It was Peres who let that dark genie out of the bottle. Many settlers still remember him planting a tree at Ofra in the early days, and he was actively involved at that time in planning other, now long-established settlements as well.

Not surprisingly, Peres makes no reference to the Kadum episode in his book. Perhaps remorse was not in his repertoire. A well-known Hebrew poet who, as a ranking officer in the reserves, was present at the crucial moment in Sebastia became, willy-nilly, part of the notorious compromise. I’ve heard him say that he can’t forgive himself for his minor part in what happened. There’s no doubt in my mind as to who was the more honest man. But Peres tells us that he always preferred to think forward, toward the future, rather than backward. In those days, when the ornithological metaphor still dominated public discourse in Israel, he was a self-proclaimed hawk, and he saw the new settlements as “the roots and the eyes of Israel.”3

Gradually, something changed in him. By late 1982, five years after Menachem Begin led the Israeli right to power, Peres was capable of joining the enormous Peace Now demonstration in Tel Aviv following the first Lebanon war and the Sabra and Shatila massacre on the outskirts of Beirut. Ten years later he was one of the architects of the Oslo agreements between Israel and the PLO and, as such, was vilified and physically threatened by fanatics on the right. In those days, the Oslo process seemed to many of us to be the way to a resolution of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, promising two independent states living side by side in peace.

In between, there was a disastrous fiasco, one of the defining moments in Peres’s career, though it was not his fault. He tells the story simply and convincingly. In April 1987, when Peres was foreign minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government, he initiated a meeting in London with Jordan’s King Hussein. To Peres’s surprise, Hussein was amenable to negotiating a peace treaty with Israel: “I excitedly recognized a man who was gazing to the future with optimism and hope.” A draft agreement quickly emerged; as its core element, Jordan would resume control of the West Bank and would represent Palestinian national interests, thus putting an immediate end to the Israeli occupation. As Peres says, in bitter retrospection:

Not only did [the proposed agreement] create a path to peace with the Jordanians, it resolved the Palestinian question without requiring Israel to relinquish any of its territory or to change the status of Jerusalem.

“Any of its territory” refers to Israel within the Green Line—that is, the pre-1967 borders plus greater Jerusalem.

Shamir, an inflexible hard-liner committed to the already obsolete notion of Greater Israel—an Israel that included all the land west of the Jordan—squashed the deal, and we are still living with the consequences. Indeed, Shamir’s blind rejection of the very possibility of resolving the conflict provided a model for Israel’s continuing refusal, from 2001 to the present, even to consider what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative (or the Saudi plan), which is based on the idea of a complete regional peace in exchange for an Israeli retreat from the territories. Given the choice between holding on to the land and making peace, the right-wing Israeli governments of the last decades have consistently chosen the former.

Micha Bar-Am/Magnum Photos
Shimon Peres at a celebration of Mimouna, which marks the end of Passover and the return to eating leavened foods, Jerusalem, 1981

There is thus a great sadness (also a certain ennui) in reading this book. Things could have turned out differently. In 1996, in the first election after Rabin’s assassination, Peres—who had taken over as prime minister—lost to Netanyahu by a mere 30,000 votes, a negligible percentage of those cast. Had he won… But maybe we shouldn’t think that thought. He eventually went on to become a rather successful president of the state (2007–2014), certainly a vast improvement over his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, who went to jail for rape.

But the vision Peres had sought to enact eluded him. He believed in peace as an attainable and necessary option, and he went some way toward structuring the contours of that future peace. He faced huge difficulties on both sides of the conflict; but in the end it was the marked rightward shift within the Israeli electorate and the tremendous violence unleashed in the second intifada that blocked his hopes. The Israeli peace camp dwindled to insignificance as the patently false but convenient notion that there was no Palestinian partner struck deep roots. That notion is still dominant today, a self-fulfilling illusion beloved of Israeli prime ministers from both right and center and, by now, of the Israeli street. Maybe the roots were always there, only waiting to come back to life.

Does this history make Peres into a tragic figure, as S. Yizhar, the great inventor of modern Hebrew prose, used to say? Yizhar’s most famous story, “Khirbet Khiz’a,” published shortly after the 1948 war, tells of the expulsion of innocent Palestinian villagers by soldiers of the new Jewish state. Yizhar himself witnessed such events during the war. His story was for many years a canonical text in Israeli high schools (not anymore). Later, he was elected to the Knesset and knew Peres well. In his words, “There was something tragic within him, a measure of Job without the mentality of Job.”

That’s one way to put it. But it somehow makes Peres, a hyperactive politician if ever there was one, into a victim, as if he were not himself the instrument of his fate. I think he lacked the single most important attribute of a tragic hero: the insight into reality won by facing terrible mental pain. He was an optimist, and habitual optimism, mostly a rather shallow thing, doesn’t lend itself to penetrating visions of truth.

On a deeper level, we might speak of the clash of two seemingly incompatible views. On the one hand, there is the old heroic myth, still embedded in the story the Israeli mainstream likes to tell itself: a weak and persecuted nation (if that is what we are) rose from the ashes to achieve its freedom, by sheer force of will, against inconceivably harsh odds. On the other hand, there is the awareness of our share in the endless violence and wickedness, including the subjugation of another people, and of what needs to be done in order to achieve even a semblance of normalcy and decency in the real world.

The first view, which reflects a real-enough piece of the historical picture, blithely ignores the always latent pathology of modern nationalism, now present in florid form in Israel (as in many other modern nation-states). There is also the question as to whether the tremendous violence inflicted on Palestinians by the state-in-the-making was and has remained intrinsic to the entire Zionist enterprise. The second view moves toward a necessarily symbiotic relation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians and sees this principle of mutual responsibility as the only acceptable direction for the whole story—indeed, in some nontrivial sense, as its raison d’être.

There is, perhaps, a generational aspect to this dichotomy. Members of my generation in the peace movement may feel some residual nostalgia for the imaginative world of Peres and a real sympathy for his ultimately quixotic travails. My younger activist friends tend to see him primarily as an unwitting architect of a state that has morphed into the monstrous dystopia of Netanyahu and his cronies.

Again and again in the pages of Peres’s book, we get the old–new romance in one form or another. Israel, we are told, has the best, the most intrepid army in the world, as well as the most high-tech start-ups per capita, the second-highest number of foreign firms (after China) listed on the Nasdaq exchange, the greatest scientists—the inventors of the USB drive, of GPS, and of other emergent wonders of nanotechnology—and also (even more to the point) the most idealistic and talented young people on the globe, and so on (and on). The state is altogether a miracle; Israeli realism, Peres never tires of telling us, quoting his mentor David Ben-Gurion, means making the impossible real. It was once a captivating and occasionally persuasive dream.

And indeed there is much to be proud of. I, too, am sometimes proud of my country. About idealism, Peres could be right: probably few know that Israel has well over five hundred ordinary people who are on constant call to drive Palestinians—the lucky ones who manage to get permits to go for medical treatment in Israel—from Gaza to the hospitals and back. Without these drivers, there is no way such severely ill people could reach their doctors. Here, one might say, is a Jewish act in the old style.

However, it just happens that this same miraculous state, for all its selfless idealists, is maintaining one of the last true colonial regimes in the world; that its public spaces are poisoned by an atavistic racism, its leaders driven by a mean-hearted, self-righteous tribalism; that its minister of justice, or injustice, Ayelet Shaked, has recently announced that the paltry excuse of elementary human rights will never be allowed to get in the way of the nation’s maximalist goals; that its minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, is doing whatever she can to stamp out criticism and dissent of any kind, the lifeblood of cultural creativity; that its army has spent the last several decades as a police force in territories that belong to another people, its main task being to ensure that the land grab can go on undisturbed. Perhaps the most bitter irony in Peres’s book is its disingenuous dedication: “To the next generation of leaders, in Israel and around the world.” Israel has never had so contemptible, so morally corrupt, and so shortsighted a leadership, and sadly in this respect it is far from alone in today’s world.

Let’s take a leaf from Peres’s own book and peer around the corner. For over two and a half decades, the bulk of the traumatized Palestinian population in the territories (over four million people) dreamed the dream of an independent Palestine comprising the West Bank and Gaza, as all the reliable studies and surveys have shown. This dream has been shattered by Israel’s remorseless annexationist policies and by the profound reluctance of its extreme right-wing governments to make even the slightest move toward peace. The latest polls from Palestine show a dramatic loss of faith in the present moderate leadership in Ramallah, although, remarkably, 43 percent of those polled still seem to believe in the possibility of a Palestinian state.

But already one can hear the beginning notes of a chorus that may eventually drown out most other voices in the territories. If there is to be no peace between the two states west of the Jordan River, then, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his speech at the UN in September, “Neither you [the peoples of the world], nor we, will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.” Indeed, the struggle for basic rights within a single binational state has already begun. Israeli activists, having despaired of a solution based on radical separation, will certainly join in. It will look something like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa or the American civil rights movement, and sooner or later, at whatever cost, we will win.

  1. 1

    The tripartite division of the West Bank was part of the interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinians under the Oslo accords. Area A is (at least nominally) under exclusive Palestinian control. Area B is a mixed zone, with Palestinian management of civil matters but security in the hands of the Israeli army. Area C is under total Israeli military and political control. 

  2. 2

    See my “Occupation: ‘The Finest Israeli Documentary,’The New York Review, May 22, 2014. 

  3. 3

    See Yossi Beilin, “The Transformation of Shimon Peres,” Foreign Affairs, July 24, 2014.