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The Chances of Shimon Peres

Battling for Peace: A Memoir

by Shimon Peres
Random House, 350 pp., $25.00


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 to make peace where Ben-Gurion failed to make peace, and he also wanted not simply to defend Israel but to take the military initiative and win a more decisive victory than Ben-Gurion ever did. He made peace with Egypt, and started a disastrous war in Lebanon. Dayan, as Begin’s foreign minister, wanted to atone for his own failure to prevent the war of October 1973; he knew that only peace with Egypt might earn him a place in the history books.

Rabin and Peres had their first chance to “make history” in the 1970s. When Rabin succeeded Golda Meir as Israel’s prime minister in 1974, after the October War, Peres was his minister of defense. Instead of making peace with the Arabs, they were at war with each other. The suspicious Rabin believed that Peres, the “indefatigable underminer,” was constantly plotting against him. In June 1992, with Labor’s first election victory in fifteen years, they got their second chance. They were by then both in their early seventies. They had come to conceive of peace, in William James’s phrase, as “a moral equivalent” of war. There is nothing self-evident about this equivalence, certainly not in Israel. While Rabin was forming his new cabinet, his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, said:

We still need this truth today, the truth of the power of war, or at least we need to accept war as inescapable because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose and the nation has no chance of survival. (Yediot Ahronot, June 22, 1992)

In 1991 Shamir’s government had been dragged by the American Secretary of State James Baker to the Madrid peace conference. This was followed by bilateral talks between Israel and a delegation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, including, among others, Hanan Ashrawi and Feisal Husseini. When Rabin came to power in 1992 he assumed personal responsibility for these bilateral talks, and kept Peres at a distance from them. However, Rabin came in for severe criticism both from Western governments and from his supporters in Israel’s civil rights movement when he expelled 415 Hamas activists to Lebanon in December 1992. He suddenly needed Peres’s support within the Labor party, and Peres became his partner in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Both Rabin and Peres were thinking of an accommodation with the Arabs that would take place in two phases. In the first phase, during their first term of office, they would make an “interim agreement” with the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, and possibly a joint declaration with the Syrians of the principles for a future peace arrangement, while also negotiating for mutual recognition with Jordan. The interim agreement would give the Palestinians control of most of Gaza and local authority in the West Bank. For the second phase, which was to take place during their second term of office, i.e., after the 1996 elections, they projected several new agreements. One would replace the interim agreement with a “permanent” arrangement that would be negotiated with the elected Palestinian authorities. It was presumed that the Palestinians would achieve sovereignty, or something close to it, over much of the West Bank and Gaza. Ever cautious, Rabin wanted to test the good faith of the Palestinians at each step. He and Peres also hoped to implement the declaration with Syria, and make a peace agreement with Jordan.

One part of this plan worked out more successfully than anticipated when a peace treaty was signed with Jordan in July 1994. Another turned out less well: the talks with the Syrians have come to a standstill. An interim agreement turned out to be feasible but instead of dealing with the Palestinians from the Territories, Israel made a deal with the PLO leaders who had been based in Tunisia.

This was possible because Yossi Beilin, then deputy foreign minister, and Peres’s confidant, had set up a secret negotiating channel in Oslo, using two Israeli academics as intermediaries. The Israeli professors were not themselves politically influential. But their Palestinian counterpart, Abu Ala’a, turned out to be very important indeed. Although the Israelis were quite unaware of it at the time—Israeli intelligence reports contained fewer than five pages about him2—he was incharge of the PLO’s finances. More than anyone else, he knew how close to bankruptcy the PLO had become owing to its disastrous backing of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Its usual sources of money, particularly in the Gulf states, had dried up.

By May 1993, Peres had become confident that the Oslo talks could lead to a deal. He asked Rabin’s permission to take them over himself and Rabin refused. But Rabin agreed that an ally of Peres’s, the director general of the foreign ministry, Uri Savir, would head the negotiations; and the Oslo talks were upgraded still further when Rabin assigned one of his confidants, the lawyer Yoel Singer, to join them. But Rabin remained skeptical. When asked about the talks by Secretary Christopher, only a few weeks before an agreement was reached, Rabin dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Rabin was never an articulate man but was highly expressive in his body language. Christopher concluded that the Oslo track was not serious.

But the PLO and Israel soon signed an interim agreement to be carried out in two stages. The first stage, which came to be known as “Gaza and Jericho first,” called for Israeli withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip and from the township of Jericho, and for the establishment of a Palestinian authority in these two places; at the same time Israel was to recognize the PLO. Last autumn, some two years later, the second stage, known as Oslo II, was put into effect when Israeli forces withdrew from all the major cities of the West Bank except Hebron, as well as from hundreds of villages, and the first Palestinian elections took place. Israel remains in control of most of the rest of the occupied territory and also of its main water supplies. Still to be negotiated is the “permanent” arrangement with the Palestinians that will replace the interim agreement.

The four recent suicide bombings by members of Hamas, in which sixty-two people have been killed, have now put Labor’s second term of office in jeopardy. It is still not clear whether the Oslo accords will lead to a historical change or whether they will amount to merely another episode—interesting but ultimately insignificant—in the hostile relations between Israel and the Arabs.


Peres started thinking about his place in history at a young age. In 1958, as the thirty-five-year-old director general of Ben-Gurion’s ministry of defense, he became friends with France’s Socialist prime minister Guy Mollet. In one of their conversations—reported by his biographer but not by Peres in Battling for Peace—Mollet wanted to know whether Peres approved of his having helped De Gaulle regain power. He told Mollet:

A man in power lives under stress. One event comes after another, here he is summoned on the telephone and there he speeds in a car, and then, after a while, he wakes up one morning and asks himself “what have I achieved in my life?” I believe that the truly great men can free themselves, at the right moments, from the world of drama and reach the world of history, enter the memory of the people. If the people remember you for many generations—this is history.

If the Likud comes to power on May 29, will the Oslo agreements be forgotten by the next generation or will they be remembered as the beginning of the historical reconciliation between the two peoples? Certainly Rabin’s assassination will not be forgotten. But the future of the peace between Israel and the Palestinians may entirely depend on Labor’s attaining a second term of office. This means that a handful of Hamas suicide bombers, if they succeed in depriving Labor of victory, will have wiped out a political development that looked for a while as if it might change history.

  1. 1

    I rely on the original, Hebrew version of Matti Golan’s book The Road to Peace: A Biography of Shimon Peres, which subsequently appeared in a shorter English version published in 1989 by Warner Books, translated by Akiva Ron.

  2. 2

    David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO (Westview Press, 1996), p. 23, note 15.

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