By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Three times Prime Minister. Three times Foreign Minister. Twice Defense Minister. Minister of Finance. Minister of Transportation. President.
Shimon Peres was a living embodiment of the State of Israel. Born in what is now Belarus, but was then Poland, he moved to British Mandate Palestine with his family in 1934. By age 29 he was director general of the Defense Ministry. It was in defense procurement and development of Israel’s defense strategic depth, including nuclear technology, that Shimon Peres flourished and made his first essential impact to the state. Unlike the other influential figures in the state who often came from a military background, Peres was never in the army. In many ways he represented the legacy of David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister with whom he had close relations. He was a politicians’ politician. A statesman’s statesman.
The memory of Peres is primarily shaped by his longevity and term as President from 2007-2014. As the living face of Israel, he represented the state and a vision of it that was carved in the lines of his brow. Much like Elie Wiesel and Holocaust memory, it was unclear where Peres ended and the state began. This unique relationship between man and state is unique in politics. It primarily only occurs in countries where there is a cult of personality, such as North Korea’s leading family, or Suharto in Indonesia, Castro in Cuba. Democracies rarely produce living embodiments of the state. Even when they do produce founding generations, such as the Thomas Jeffersons and John Adams’ of the United States, the men rarely live long enough or enjoy such respect for so long as to be one and the same with the country. Even Churchill, for instance, fell from power at the height of his fame in 1945.
Reactions to the death of Peres on September 28th were mixed. David Hazony wrote on Facebook. “In the span of one lifetime, Shimon Peres drove the procurement of weapons for Israel in the 40s and 50s; achieved its strategic nuclear reality in the 60s, saved Israel’s economy in the 1980s, pushed through the Oslo process in the 90s, and saved the Presidency in the 2000s.” This is the general view of Peres, one gained through contextualizing his importance in the political and economic landscape of Israeli history.
But on the street people in Israel were more nuanced. At a coffeeshop one man said loudly to the barista, “look at everyone now eulogizing Peres, and most of them hated him. [Benjamin] Netanyahu hated him, and listen to him today. No one liked Peres not so long ago, but now they’ve all changed their minds.” The barista agreed. He shrugged his shoulders at the death and the coverage blaring from a TV screen.
Asked about Peres’ role in the economy another man who asked, “Were you hear during the time of hyperinflation? When you got paid at the beginning of the week, it would be worth less and less by the end of the week, so you had to rush to spend it. If Peres was involved in changing that, then that’s great.” He wasn’t clear on whether Peres had actually had a role in helping him in the 80s, but imagined that perhaps he just didn’t know.
Others recalled the visceral dislike many in Israel once had for the statesman. “I was at a rally when people threw rotten eggs at Peres in Gan Sachar. They hated Labor back then. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it. It was before Oslo, thirty years ago,” said a colleague.
Hated. Despised. A loser. Those were the words once used when Peres was in the arena. But how things do change. How legacies change. “It never ceases to amaze me how one can flip from being hated to being loved at their moment of death…enough said,” recalled a man who met Peres when he was younger, but who is familiar with the negative views once held for Peres on the right. Among many pro-Palestinian activists and in the Middle East, the “legacy” is more mixed. “war criminal whose crimes the West ignored,” claimed MiddleEastMonitor. Al-Jazeera, which called him the “last remaining founding father,” of Israel, noted that their analyst, Yehia Ghanem, would remember Peres as a “war criminal.”This was “in light of the 1996 Qana massacre..People who are praising him [Peres] supported Israel and all of its crimes throughout its history…The fact he ordered this massacre in Qana was and still is considered a war crime.” On the left in Israel anti-Peres voices complained that he was a hawk, a right wing member of labor who supported settlements. Although they accepted that he was involved in the peace process, they found his legacy mixed.
Inside Israel even after his role in the presidency representing Israel as the face of the nation abroad, a symbol of peace, an elder statesman, there were grumblings. His 90th birthday party, celebrated while he was President, was critiqued for how lavish and strange it was for a sitting leader of a state to celebrate his birthday with celebrities and world leaders, as if the state existed for his glory, rather than the other way around.
With the passing of Peres there will be a feeling that one aspect of Israel has been lost. The connection and nostalgia to the 1950s generation. The “good”, “pure” and “egalitarian” Israel. The Israel of early Zionism, of dreams, of inspiration. As the state passes into maturity, it leaves behind the mantle of myth. “It is a shame to see Peres passing as he and Rabin were great men and two of a small handful of Israeli politicians of real character and foresight. The fanatical religious monkeys, political hacks and false prophets of today are the bottom of the barrel and taking Israel down with them,” wrote a “former Israel supporter,” to me in an email this morning.
For adherents of Oslo and the “Oslo generation,” the passing of Peres may be a milestone. For almost 25 years Israel and the Palestinians have lived under the paradigm of a two-state solution, even as that reality slips through the grasp of possibility. But many still hold out hope and see a Peres legacy. Dennis Ross, who knew Peres for decades, recalled “In the 30 years that I have known Peres, I have seen him model himself on Ben-Gurion – to think strategically, to imagine where Israel needed to be in the future, to embrace change, and to never fear making decisions. Many have described Peres as a dreamer, at times naïve, speaking of a new Middle East in the 1990s when the region was far from being transformed and resistant to globalization and its implications.”
The reality is that Israel will learn little from the passing of its elder statesman. His vision is partly myth and to the extent that it is reality it is in planning for strategic depth. That strategic depth has been accomplished with the recent $38 billion aid package from the US, the increased power Israel has in cyber-security and its advances in other technologies. It’s position in the region is strong and its military is one of the best in the world. Although despised by some, it is also increasingly recognized by European states as a place of instruction on how to deal with terror. Even as they critique Israel for its human rights abuses and lack of civil rights, they want to know more about administrative detention and other methods Israel uses. Sunni Arab states in the region embrace Israel as they fear Iran’s rise. Turkey, Russia, India, China, and other important and rising countries who benefit from American decline internationally, are close with Israel. That strategic vision, partly of Peres making, is his real legacy.