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…

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