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.
Zhou Enlai was once asked whether the French revolution was a good thing. “Too early to tell,” he said, and this must for now be the answer to the question whether the Oslo agreements are of historical significance.
Several quite different outcomes are worth considering. The first is that the Oslo agreements created irreversible political facts. After all, if Netanyahu is elected, what can he do? Could he, realistically, re-conquer Gaza, reoccupy the West Bank towns, and restore the military administration that formerly ruled them, along with the military detention centers in which many thousands of Palestinians were held? This would be an immensely expensive and dangerous undertaking, all the more so now that twenty thousand Palestinian police in Gaza and the West Bank have arms. Still, while Netanyahu may be unable to annul the agreements, he could freeze them. That is to say, he could decide not to move ahead with their next stages, and would only refuse to negotiate “permanent” status on any terms the Palestinians could possibly accept. He would drag on the negotiations forever.
At the same time, however, Netanyahu would be aware that many of his supporters want both revenge for the bombings and the complete separation of Israel from the Arabs. The current vision of many Likud voters is one of tangible, physical isolation from the Palestinians, preferably on the model of the Berlin Wall—including electrified wires, mine fields, and heavily guarded checkpoints. If the Likud, once in power, cannot annual the Oslo accords, and if Hamas terror activities continue to exert pressure on Likud leaders to physically separate Israelis from the Arabs, one likely consequence will be that the old Likud fantasy of an undivided Greater Israel has no future.
But there is a more chilling possibility: if Hamas terrorism continues, a Likud government will be constrained neither politically nor militarily from annulling the Oslo agreements and returning to the old system of direct Israeli occupation. This is the outcome that the Hamas militants prefer, since it would effectively bring to an end the rule of Arafat—not just in practice but officially as well—and would deliver many of his supporters to the Hamas. This is also what some of the Israelis to the right of Likud would prefer. They would like to be able to say of the Palestinians—whether in Israel or the Occupied Territories—that “they are all Hamas,” and await an opportunity to expel as many of them as possible into Jordan so as to fulfill at last the vision of the Greater Israel, cleansed of Arabs.
Benjamin Netanyahu and some key Likud ministers he would appoint, Dan Meridor and Benjamin Begin, would probably not push for the annulment of the Oslo accords; nor would they necessarily want to get rid of Arafat, at least not right away. They would be quite satisfied to deprive the accords of any remaining significance. They would probably do so, first, by reviving the old Likud policy of settlement in the West Bank, filling the territory with Jewish settlements so that the Palestinians cannot have control over any continuous strip of land linking the towns and villages. In such a case Israel would remain de facto sovereign over the entire West Bank. The Palestinians would, at best, be relegated to Bantustans. This is the practical meaning of the Likud platform of the Greater Israel, and nothing that has happened on the West Bank thus far as a result of the Oslo agreements precludes its being fulfilled.
After the four suicide bombings, Peres imposed a policy of prolonged closure in the territories. All movements of people and goods from Gaza and the West Bank to Israel were banned, as were movements among the Palestinian towns on the West Bank. Some of the restrictions have since been relaxed, but the result is an economic siege which has taken its toll on the Palestinian economy. The Palestinians who work in Israel, estimated at sixty thousand, provide the territories with a vital source of income. Ironically, when closure was previously applied, before the Oslo agreement, Israel channeled modest amounts of money to the territories, in order to alleviate the Palestinians’ economic plight. After the agreement, Israel sees itself as exempt from any responsibility for the consequences of closure.
The closure policy is also extremely dangerous to Arafat’s authority. When he recently visited Nablus, he was almost chased out of Al-najah University by angry students. Arafat is also under heavy pressure from the Israelis to capture Mohammed Dief, the current leader of the Hamas military units, as a condition for lifting the closure.
The leaders of the ideological right wing in Israel were always of two minds about closures. They supported them because they meant being tough with the Arabs. At the same time, the right-wing leaders were afraid that imposing closure along the green line—the pre 1967 border of Israel—would resurrect the very frontier they tried so hard to erase. The right-wing parties, however, sense that most Israelis now favor separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Separation could mean two sovereign states, with elaborate physical barriers between them, or it could mean a separation between the Israeli and the Palestinian communities within a Greater Israel. The latter is an apartheid notion of separation, in which Palestinian enclaves would be controlled by carrot-and-stick policies of closure. Following Rabin’s views, some important ministers in Peres’s government, notably Ehud Barak and Chaim Ramon, advocate physical separation. Likud leans toward the second, apartheid notion of separation. Peres, for his part, has rejected both notions of separation. He writes that he is for “soft borders, not rigid, impermeable ones. Borders are not walls.”3
If Likud wins, then, the Oslo accords may well turn out to be a mere episode, a footnote to history. The accords may be deprived of any meaning, and—if terror resumes—the Likud could well annul them altogether. Peres needs another term of office in order to make the Oslo accords a historical fact.
In the event that Peres does not win the election, then his most enduring accomplishment will have taken place some four decades ago, when he almost single-handedly initiated and then carried out Israel’s nuclear program. In Battling for Peace he describes how Ben-Gurion supported him while many other Labor leaders agreed with Abba Eban, who described the nuclear reactor as “an enormous alligator stranded on dry land.” Israel’s nuclear capacity undoubtedly had a huge impact on the history of the state of Israel and of the entire region, but Peres cannot claim credit for it since it is an unmentionable subject in Israel’s politics.
Still, those like myself who oppose nuclear deterrence on moral grounds have to admit that nuclear deterrence has worked so far. According to the Arab leaders themselves, Israel’s nuclear capacity is the single most important element in the Arab perception of Israel’s military might. A former Egyptian general told me, for example, that the Egyptian army’s plans for the opening stages of the 1973 October War were confined to the Suez Canal zone from fear that if they penetrated Israel further, the Israeli leaders might have felt sufficiently threatened to use nuclear weapons. Israel’s nuclear power, it also could be argued, was decisive in convincing the Arab states that Israel could not be annihilated and that negotiations were preferable. At the same time, a nuclear capacity, with its potential for deadly accidents, makes tiny and over-populated Israel dangerous not just to its neighbors but to itself as well.
In the 1950s Peres was ostensibly no more than a civil servant, the deputy to the director general of the ministry of defense, and then, after 1952, director general. But the minister of defense was the allpowerful Ben-Gurion, and Ben-Gurion backed Peres. In later years, Peres himself became minister of defense during Rabin’s first term as prime minister, and between 1984 and 1986 he was prime minister. But I doubt he ever had more power than in the Fifties when he was a civil servant under Ben-Gurion. Indeed, Peres had a crucial part in all the major decisions of the 1950s, including establishing Israel’s close relations with France, organizing the Suez campaign with France and Great Britain in 1956, and in working out the secret military understanding with France and Germany that they would support Israel if it was attacked.
During Israel’s first decade, foreign policy meant, above all, a policy to acquire arms. The Soviet Union was supplying Egypt with heavy weapons by way of Czechoslovakia—under the Czech-Egyptian pact of 1955—while Great Britain and the United States imposed a general arms embargo on the Middle East. Israel’s only hope to acquire weapons that would outmatch Egypt’s was to work out deals with Germany and France. Relations with post-Holocaust Germany were still difficult, however, in spite of the reparations agreement signed between Adenauer and Ben-Gurion in 1952. It was Peres who negotiated Israel’s armament deals with Franz Joseph Strauss, Germany’s defense minister, and with Guy Mollet and Maurice Bourges-Maunoury, France’s prime ministers.
Israel’s foreign minister at the time was Golda Meir. Peres recalls Teddy Kollek’s view that she didn’t “so much conduct a foreign policy as maintain a hate list.” In that sense, Golda Meir’s foreign policy included Abba Eban and Shimon Peres, both of whom she hated. But Kollek’s description is only partially true. Meir was eager to improve Israel’s image among the nations of the “Third World,” which saw Israel as an agent of imperialism. She therefore devoted much energy to establishing close ties with many African nations. Peres, by contrast, viewed Israel’s relations with foreign countries mainly with regard to their ability to help Israel get arms. The African nations could not provide arms; they needed them themselves.
Peres also was largely responsible for organizing the Israeli military-industrial complex, with a particular emphasis on the aircraft industry. Israel’s defense industry introduced advanced technology into its economy, and Peres can take most of the credit for this. Undoubtedly, however, his greatest accomplishment was building the 24,000-kilowatt nuclear reactor in Dimona, with technological help from France. From Peres’s book, we get a clear account of what has long been rumored: the prospect of obtaining that technology was Peres’s main reason for volunteering Israel’s participation in the Suez campaign.
The agreement between the British, the French, and the Israelis to attack Egypt was signed in Sèvres in October 1956. Peres recalls that “before the final signing, I asked Ben-Gurion for a brief adjournment, during which I met with Mollet and Bourges-Maunoury alone. It was here that I finalized with these two leaders an agreement for the building of a nuclear reactor at Dimona, in southern Israel.”
Peres was involved in every stage of the building of the nuclear complex, from recruiting scientists to designing the buildings. But impressive and significant as this achievement may have been, it will always be seen as ambiguous, the creation of a terrible weapon to avoid a terrible outcome. Peres badly needs a “moral equivalent” to the nuclear bomb. In today’s Israel he is seen as a visionary, partly because of his hopes that peace will result in a regional common market as well as an aid program, comparable to the Marshall Plan, supported by the US, Japan, and Europe. “Visionary” has for many Israelis a double edge. In the 1950s it was Ben-Gurion who was credited with having vision. Peres was seen as a doer, so much so that he was derided as a man whose ideology was simply “doism,” regardless of content.
Peres’s image as a visionary now and as a doer then does not do him justice. He is more intelligent and more imaginative than Ben-Gurion ever was. Many of Ben-Gurion’s visions in the Fifties were not his own; they were ideas Peres managed to sell him on. Using his mentor’s immense authority, Peres was able to carry some of them out, particularly the creation of a modern industrial establishment. Ben-Gurion was willing to consider even some of Peres’s wildest ideas, such as leasing the French colony Guyana in South America so that Israel could use it for agricultural development. This idea was described by Pinhas Sapir, the Labor party boss of the 1960s, as “a catastrophe, the sort of colonialism and imperialism which will be resented in South America and will be disastrous for us in Africa.”
In the years following the Suez campaign Peres was drunk with power—his own as well as his country’s. “I propose that in our national thinking we should recognize the centrality of the idea that changes in the Middle East might present us with the necessity, or perhaps the opportunity, to re-think our national borders.” This statement, delivered by Peres to the Security and Foreign Relations committee of the Knesset, could only be interpreted as suggesting the possibility of territorial expansion. Perhaps the greatest change Peres has undergone over the years is that today he recognizes the limits of power, both his own and his country’s.
In the 1950s Israel was ruled by three strong men: Ben-Gurion as prime minister and minister of defense, Moshe Dayan as chief of staff, and Shimon Peres as director general of the ministry of defense. For a short period, when Ben-Gurion retreated to his “ashram” at the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev desert, Peres and Dayan were joined by Pinhas Lavon who was appointed minister of defense. Sapir warned Lavon of Dayan and Peres: “They will take your socks off while your shoes are on, and you won’t even notice.” In effect they did. In Battling for Peace Peres calls Lavon’s appointment a “ghastly mistake,” and writes of his “disastrous decisions,” including a 1953 reprisal action by the Israeli army in which sixty-nine civilians were killed in the Jordanian town of Kibiye. (Peres does not say that Ben-Gurion approved this raid.)
In July 1954 Israel embarked upon a series of undercover operations in Egypt, including a plan to bomb US libraries, whose aim was to drive a wedge between Nasser’s Egypt and the United States. One member of the Israeli cell was caught by the Egyptians in Alexandria, bomb in hand. Later the entire cell was arrested, and two of its members were subsequently hanged. Although efforts were made to keep the plot secret, a political scandal emerged. Within the government and among the Mapai politicians, the question was posed, “Who gave the order” to carry out the plan? Forged documents were circulated to pin the blame on Lavon, who resigned in 1955. Peres writes at length about the Lavon affair, never quite saying who was responsible for what, as in the following passage about the strategy meetings he attended with Lavon:
No order was ever issued in my presence to actually carry out any such action, but certainly there was discussion of what action Israel could take against U.S. interests or facilities in Egypt that would create tension and alienation between the two countries. I expressed reservations about the idea. But it did not surprise me, later, that some of the men who had heard Lavon at such meetings came to believe that a covert operation would accord with the minister’s new Weltanschauung. I cannot say—and I want to make this totally clear—that I ever heard a specific order from Lavon’s mouth, but the general policy direction was there; it was present in the air at those meetings.
Peres and Dayan may not have been part of the conspiracy against Lavon, but, as Lavon claimed, “they jumped on the bandwagon,” with the others who wanted to bring him down. In the early 1960s Lavon started a campaign to rehabilitate his name, accusing Ben-Gurion of plotting to destroy him and he got the support of some of the Mapai leaders who resented Ben-Gurion and his autocratic ways. The political upheaval that followed led to a split in the Mapai party, and then to Ben-Gurion’s impulsive decision to form his own new party, Rafi. Against his better judgment, Peres joined Ben-Gurion out of loyalty. Dayan joined too.
Peres admired both Ben-Gurion and Dayan; Ben-Gurion he both feared and revered, Dayan he adored. Peres considered himself a friend of Dayan’s, although it is not clear that Dayan thought he was a friend of Peres’s. But then it is not clear that Dayan was anybody’s friend. Peres was much concerned to protect Dayan’s reputation. (“I don’t care about prestige—other people’s prestige,” Dayan said.) Peres’s admiration for Ben-Gurion and for Dayan had much to do with their being ruthless and inconsiderate in the extreme, and also with their being utterly unconventional. To him they both radiated with the inner freedom and spontaneity that he himself, ever self-controlled and calculated, lacked and envied.
Peres had to persuade Ben-Gurion to appoint Dayan chief of staff of the Israeli army; Dayan’s reputation for being anarchic made him an unlikely commander of a military machine based on discipline and order. One day, shortly thereafter, Peres received a telephone call from Ben-Gurion: “Shimon, come immediately.”
I ran up the stairs and into Ben-Gurion’s room. “That Moshe of yours,” he spat at me as I entered, “is standing on the balcony of the IDF headquarters with a rifle and firing at random.”
I mumbled something to the effect that this was impossible, that there must be a mistake, and rushed over to the two-story General Staff building next door. Sure enough, Dayan was there, on the balcony, with a shotgun. I flew up the stairs and burst in. “Have you gone mad?” I began. He turned calmly around. “Have you received an invitation to dinner at my house tonight?” he asked. I confirmed that I had. “Do you know what the occasion is?” I admitted I did not. “It’s my thirty-ninth birthday,” he explained sweetly. “I’ve decided to invite thirty-nine guests. The main course will be roast pigeon—and now I’m bagging the pigeons.”
Peres, to his credit, admired not only Dayan’s rowdiness but also his Hebrew, which indeed was simple, fresh, and finely phrased. Peres’s Hebrew is rich and elaborate, with a compulsive tendency toward over-cleverness. If at some military ceremony a speaker would refer to the iron will of the young officers, Peres will respond that the issue is not iron will as much as the will to use iron. He has by now acquired a genuine taste for literature.
Peres was born Shimon Persky in 1923 in Vishneva, a small Jewish shtetl in Poland, now Belarus. He studied Hebrew at school there, his teacher being Yehoshua Rabinowitz, who was to serve as an austere and effective finance minister in Rabin’s first government between 1974 and 1977, in which Peres served as defense minister. Peres’s family emigrated to Palestine when he was ten. It was a petit bourgeois family, and Peres was sent to a commercial school in Tel Aviv. However, in those years education was acquired more in youth movements than in schools, and Peres joined the socialist youth movement, which shaped his future. He transferred to the agricultural school at Ben-Shemen, and there Peres tried to establish a new identity by changing his name, Persky, to a Hebrew name. He first chose Ben-Amoz, after the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz, but later decided that this was too pretentious and changed it to Peres, meaning vulture.
Curiously, another Polish boy at the same school took the name Ben-Amoz for himself. Dan Ben-Amoz became eventually one of Israel’s cultural heroes, a satirical writer, editor, and performer who, more than anyone else, contributed to, indeed shaped, the myth of the “Sabra,” the tough, shaggy product of the Jewish frontier settlements, the Israeli new man. (Even the Sabra, then, is a Polish invention.) But Peres never became a Sabra. Whether in his hair-style, or dress, or in his accent, or in his behavior, he could be a cultivated European. Dayan remained for him the quintessential Sabra.
While in school Peres fell in love with Sonia, his carpentry teacher’s daughter, whom he later married. He recalls, credibly enough, that he would read poetry to her at nights, along with passages from Das Kapital. “It was,” he writes, “the Soviet Union that held special fascination for us—both as the country of origin of most of the Jews then in Palestine and as the homeland of communism, the ideology that promised to heal all the ills of the world.” He was then “discovered” when still in his teens by Berl Katznelson, the educator and theoretician of Israel’s labor movement, who had once written a booklet on Zionism with Maxim Gorky and whose analysis of Stalinist betrayal and despotism convinced Peres, he writes, that he had to “fight with all my strength, Marxism, communism and the Stalinist dictatorship.” If Ben-Gurion was the labor movement’s Lenin, Katznelson was its Plekhanov. Katznelson read an article by Peres and invited him for a series of conversations, mainly about modern Hebrew literature; but the sponsorship of Katznelson largely made his political career possible.
The socialist group Peres joined went on to found Kibbutz Poriya at the Sea of Galilee. Later this kibbutz moved to an adjacent hilltop and was renamed Alumot. My two elder sisters belonged to that kibbutz, and as a small child I used to spend much time there. About “Shimon” I distinctly remember one remark: “This kibbutz is too small for him.” After serving as the secretary of labor’s youth movement, Peres was recruited to the Haganah (1947), the largest underground military organization, and he was made head of personnel.
On May 15, 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, the Haganah became the IDF, the army that was to fight the War of Independence. Peres made a great blunder when he refused the offer made to him by the first chief of staff, General Dori, of the rank of Major General—the same rank held at the time by Dayan and Rabin. He preferred to enlist “as a simple soldier.” That he was not an officer in the Israeli army was to haunt him ever after. Arik Sharon relentlessly reminds him and the Israeli public of this fact. When the Entebbe operation took place in 1976, Peres, then minister of defense, tried hard to claim part of the credit for the operation and to be identified with it; this did not work. It is still Peres’s problem today that in opposing terrorism he looks too civilian.
In spite of Peres’s education within the social-democratic wing of the labor movement, and in spite of his being deputy chair of the Socialist International, Peres cannot really be described as a socialist. The ideology he inherited from Ben-Gurion was statism (mamlachtiut). He defines it as “the doctrine of state interest taking precedence over all party or sectoral interests.” Socialism in this perspective was just one more “sectoral interest.” The main idea is that the Jewish nation must create a powerful state, one that will not only generate economic growth through science and advanced technology but must also engage in some great national enterprise. Peres’s “statist” zeal has calmed down over the years, but he clings to the idea that great enterprises must be accomplished. Right now it is the so-called Cross-Israel, the proposed superhighway cutting down the middle of the entire length of Israel, which will one day link Israel with its neighboring states. It will be a vast ecological disaster—but then this is not unusual with megalomaniac state enterprises.
Much has been written about the peace rally in Tel-Aviv at which Rabin was assassinated. It was not, as most accounts have assumed, a rally celebrating peace with the Arabs; it was, in fact, a rally celebrating Rabin’s peace with himself and with the Israeli peace camp. This was the first time that Rabin had publicly shed his ambivalence concerning his own policy of making peace with the Palestinians and the first time he had acted in a friendly way toward the members of Peace Now, who supported him without sharing his ambivalence. But another gesture took place on the podium, one even more astonishing to Israelis than the earlier handshake between Rabin and Arafat: it was Rabin’s near-friendly gesture of putting his arm around Peres.
The relationship between Rabin and Peres may be likened to an intimate, bad marriage. They went through many years of hostility and resentment toward each other, as they fought for power within the Labor Alliance. But their being thrown together year after year transformed their relationship from active hate to a more abstract, almost Platonic, hate, and eventually to something like friendship. Eulogizing Rabin at a gathering of the Labor Party, Peres said: “Just as I had unparalleled rivalry with him, I had in the past three years unparalleled friendship with him. I was astounded by the extent of this friendship.” This almost rings true. Rabin and Peres did not think of their mutual political life as a marriage; they saw each other as the only heavyweights left to fight in the Israeli political ring. The others, and especially the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, they both considered to be lightweights. The ability of Rabin and Peres to work together between 1992 and 1995 made them politically formidable. They complemented each other’s advantages, and offset each other’s flaws—Peres’s sometimes flighty imaginative impulses were moderated by Rabin’s plodding respect for details. But now Peres has to face elections on his own.
During Israel’s general elections of 1984, Peres was head of the Labor Party, Shamir the head of the Likud. The years of Likud rule had brought about an unprecedented three-digit inflation, and the debacle of the Lebanon invasion. Likud no longer had the charismatic Begin as its leader. Peres had everything going for him, and he was the clear favorite in all the polls. But a day before the elections were to take place, an Arab terrorist murdered a young Jewish woman, along with her children, on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Peres’s lead vanished. The elections resulted in a tie between Likud and Labor, which led to a national unity government with a “rotation agreement”: first Peres would serve as prime minister for two years, and Shamir for the remaining two years.
During Peres’s term of office he was arguably the best prime minister Israel ever had. He got Israel out of Lebanon, and he reduced the inflation rate which had reached more than 700 percent a year, to less than 20 percent, two highly impressive achievements. Textbooks in economics now refer to the methods Peres used to conquer hyper-inflation. But that is not the sort of accomplishment people remember.
If Peres can make peace with the Palestinians, he will certainly be remembered. Yossi Beilin, the most thoughtful among the next generation of leaders of the Israeli Labor party, has already worked out with the Palestinians the basic outline of the “permanent-status” agreement. The secret Memorandum of Understanding he negotiated with the Palestinians was signed three days before Rabin’s assassination. The plan’s basic premise is that there will be a Palestinian state. It envisages the annexation by Israel of about 6 percent of the Territories, where roughly 75 percent of the Jewish settlers reside, in exchange for a highway connecting the West Bank with the Gaza Strip. It also foresees, within twelve years, the transfer to the Palestinians of large parts of the Jordan Valley now occupied by Israel. So far, however, this is Beilin’s plan, not yet endorsed by Peres. Beilin is for Peres what Peres used to be for Ben-Gurion. In his book, Peres writes that he has long believed that “genuine implementation” of the Camp David agreements “would mean in practice negotiating the handover of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian rule, for which we were not ready.”
Beilin’s plan, or some variation of it, assumes that Israelis are ready; it stands a chance of being carried out if Peres wins the May 29 elections. If he does so, he is betting that the same voters will eventually approve Beilin’s plan in the referendum Peres proposed in March to undercut the Likud’s prediction that he would make a deal Israelis would regret. Two weeks after the last of the four suicide bomb attacks the polls gave Peres a slight edge (50 percent) over Netanyahu (47 percent). A week before, the polls gave Netanyahu 49 percent and Peres 46 percent, with 3 percent saying they would not vote.4 If there are no further terrorist attacks between now and election day, I take Peres to have perhaps a slight edge over Netanyahu. The “Rabin effect” which worked for Peres has been offset by the “terror effect” which works for Netanyahu. If Peres wins, this will signify a serious change in the preferences of the Israeli citizens—in contrast to their divided view in 1984. In spite of the enormity of terrorism, the majority of Israelis will be saying that they see no real alternative to making peace with the Palestinians.
If Peres loses, he may blame his failure on a bad error of judgment on his part, namely his decision to authorize the killing—by means of a boobytrapped cellular phone—of Yahya Ayyash, the so-called engineer, who personally masterminded the Hamas suicide terrorist attacks against Israelis for many years. In early January, Peres faced a difficult decision. The Israeli General Security Services—Shabak—presented Peres with an opportunity to kill, neatly, a highly dangerous killer. In addition to dealing out rough justice, this operation would boost the morale of the security service, of which Peres is directly in charge and whose reputation was badly tarnished by its failure to protect Rabin. Moreover, the head of the Shabak, who was about to be ousted precisely because of this failure, badly wanted to preside over an action that would enable him to depart with some glory. If Peres had decided to oppose it, his decision might well have leaked to the press, and this would surely have cost him popularity. On the other hand, if (as I believe) the likelihood of terrorist attack by Hamas before the elections was very sharply increased by the assassination of Ayyash, then for Peres to have given the green light to the killing of “the engineer” was a great mistake, one that may turn out to be the greatest mistake of his political life.
In the epilogue to his book, Peres writes: “Now, in my seventies, as I look back over my life, a phrase comes to mind that was coined by Gabriel García Márquez in one of his stories: ‘an unpaid dreamer.’
“My life’s work is not yet done. The final, crowning chapters of my biography are still being written at this time. They deal with the subject closest to my heart—peace. We are ending a decades-long history dominated by war and embarking on an era in which the guns will stay silent while dreams flourish. I feel I have earned the right to dream.”
Peres’s “unpaid dream” is what is at stake in the May elections.
—April 11, 1996
May 9, 1996
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. ↩
David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO (Westview Press, 1996), p. 23, note 15. ↩
Shimon Peres with Aryeh Naor, The New Middle East (Henry Holt, 1993), p. 171. ↩
Yediot Ahronot polls, conducted by Mina Zemach. ↩