The Reinventor

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

The late Israeli President Shimon Peres listens during a meeting at the president's residence in Jerusalem on October 28, 2013. 

Shimon Peres had a superhumanly long career in politics. By the time he'd been in public life for 60 years or so, it seemed fair to expect that three things would never happen: that he would win an election, that he would die, and that it would be possible to make an accurate assessment of what he believed, finessed, and accomplished.

In 2007, Peres finally won election to the ceremonial post of president of Israel. Yesterday he died. The accurate accounting, if it's ever possible, will have to wait much longer.

If a CV of public service were enough to attract voters, Peres certainly had one. On the eve of Israeli independence, still in his early 20s, he was put in charge of manpower and arms acquisition in the Haganah, the militia that became Israel's army. In a standard account, he wanted to move to a combat role, but founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wouldn't let him leave his staff position. What's certain is that he never officially became an officer and never fought—facts that his greatest political rival in later years, Yitzhak Rabin, would hold deeply against him.

Instead, he rose in civilian responsibility. As director of Israel's Defense Ministry in the 1950s, he forged an alliance with France, which was then engaged in its brutal war against Algerian independence. The glue was a common fight against Arab nationalism, according to an authorized biographer. Like Moshe Dayan, the general and later defense minister to whom Peres became intensely loyal, and unlike some of his colleagues in the ruling Mapai party, Peres appeared oblivious to colonialism. He did, however, have a knack for dreaming up grandiose projects and then realizing them: creating an aircraft industry in what was still a Third World country, and then a nuclear program that by all accounts turned Israel into a nuclear power.

In 1974, Peres had his first chance to become prime minister. The autumn before, Egypt and Syria had launched their surprise attack on a disastrously unprepared Israel. The war ended in a pyrrhic victory for Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Dayan, justly held responsible by the public, resigned. The ruling Labor Party—Mapai rebranded—needed to choose a leader to take over as prime minister. In the party's central committee, Peres ran against Rabin, the military chief of staff responsible for Israel's victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War.

Peres lost.

Rabin, however, had no choice but to make Peres his defense minister. Despite constant infighting and total mistrust, he couldn't dismiss Peres. At any time, Peres's hawkish faction in Labor could bolt the party, align itself with opposition leader Menachem Begin, and bring the right to power.

Let's say that again, lest it slip by: Shimon Peres was the leading hawk in Rabin's first government. Like Dayan, he favored permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank. Challenged by party doves, he had said that enough Jews would immigrate from the Soviet Union and from the West to prevent an Arab majority between the river and the sea. Everyone in the Labor government was for settlement somewhere in the occupied territories. Peres was for settlement everywhere. The settlement map he proposed at a 1976 cabinet meeting was broadly similar to the one that Ariel Sharon implemented under Likud rule.

When a minor scandal led Yitzhak Rabin to quit just before the 1977 election, Peres took his place as Labor's candidate for prime minister. He lost. It was the first time his party had ever been turned out of power.

To be fair, it wasn't just Peres. Labor was stained by the 1973 war, by corruption, by too many years running the country. It didn't help though, that voters saw little difference between Peres and Begin on settlements and peace—and that Peres never clicked with Israeli voters.

There have been many explanations. A very plausible one is that he had immigrated as a child and tried too hard to sound and act like the proudly native-born, people like Rabin and Dayan. He came across as hiding something, as inauthentic and dishonest. It's possible that once the narrative that Peres couldn't be trusted caught on, it fed on itself, and he was judged too harshly.

So he succeeded everywhere but the ballot box. In 1981, he lost again to Menachem Begin. The 1984 election brought a parliamentary tie between left and right, so Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir traded off as prime minister, two years each. In his half-term, Peres negotiated an economic deal including unions and employers that brought a sudden, almost miraculous end to hyperinflation. The electorate was underwhelmed, and Shamir won the next election. Only when Labor returned to Rabin as leader did it return to power.

During those years in opposition, Peres remarkably reinvented himself as a dove. As Rabin's foreign minister, he oversaw the secret negotiations with the PLO that led to the Oslo Accord. The idea of a two-state solution moved from the fringe to the Israeli mainstream. Along with Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. On the world stage, he was now a statesman.

When a right-wing fanatic assassinated Rabin, Peres again became prime minister. The smart thing to do was to call a snap election. But Peres apparently wanted to be elected on his own merits, not on Rabin's memory. He called the election months later. He campaigned too little. The party had no ground game. He lost to Benjamin Netanyahu by 50.5 to 49.5 percent. The Oslo process never recovered, and Netanyahu is still with us. That's part of Peres's legacy.

There were more defeats, but never mind. The long pattern finally ended in 2007, when by secret ballot in parliament he was chosen for a seven-year term as president, head of state without powers, a kind of elected constitutional monarch. He was just shy of 84 years old. As the national grandfather, whose dignity stood out next to prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, he finally achieved respect at home closer to what he enjoyed abroad. He was, by now, the last member of the founding generation, the last prime minister whose own home hadn't been a mansion but an apartment in a decent part of town.

He was an institution, and a reminder of lost idealism. The one opponent he appeared to have utterly defeated was age, until his stroke two weeks ago.

 

One reason that it's difficult to evaluate Peres's role in history is that much of the documentation is still classified—including the records of his crucial term as defense minister in the mid-1970s. His own accounts of that period are, to put it politely, unreliable. When Peres changed his vision of the future, he rewrote his past.

What makes it harder is that the last great project of his career, making peace, was interrupted by Rabin's assassination and Peres's defeat in 1996. We don't know what kind of agreement he would have tried to negotiate—whether he really aimed at a two-state outcome or still deluded himself that long-term, improved Palestinian autonomy was enough.

It remains for others to determine what his actions meant. If Israel finally resumes reconciliation with the Palestinians, the Oslo accords will deservedly be remembered as where it all started, and Peres as the man who was ahead of his time. If not, Peres will deservedly be remembered as one of the architects of the Israeli settlement project that led to one form or another of a one-state nightmare between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

The one certain legacy that Peres leaves is the ability to reinvent himself, to look forward and come up with something grand and new to accomplish, for the joy of it and because he didn't feel bound by the past. If Israel follows that example, there's hope to complete the task of peacemaking that he left unfinished.

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