The Greatness & Tragedy of Shimon Peres

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The death of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shimon Peres at 93, on September 27, marked the passing of Israel’s founding generation of leaders.  He is rightly being remembered as a visionary and a voice for peace who made the Oslo Accords possible; but he also made some decisions that boomeranged badly against him and his country.  And he endured an amazing succession of shocking disappointments and defeats that would have easily broken a lesser man.

He lost elections for prime minister in 1977, 1981, 1988 and 1996. In 1992, he lost the Labor party primary to Yitzhak Rabin. In 2000, he lost the Knesset election for the mostly ceremonial post of president to an obscure Likud legislator (Moshe Katsav — now a felon convicted for rape). In 2005, he lost the Labor party leadership primary to Amir Peretz. He has never won an election outright; he first served as prime minister from 1984 to ’86 after Labor tied Likud and agreed upon a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir. He served a second time when he succeeded the slain Yitzhak Rabin for seven and a half months in 1995-‘96.

His long-time rivalry with Rabin cast its shadow from beyond the latter’s grave.  Peres did not announce a snap election shortly after Rabin’s death, which he would have won by a landslide, because he wanted to win on his own record and not Rabin’s.  Then he okayed the Shin Bet assassination of Yihya Ayyash, the notorious Hamas bomb-maker known as “the engineer.” 

It’s easy to see some cosmic justice in this decision to kill a man responsible for the murder of scores of Israelis (mostly civilians) that undercut the Oslo peace process in its early years.  Peres also had every reason to believe it would be politically advantageous.  Instead, he blew a 20-point lead in the polls by precipitating a wave of savage revenge attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, ending a rare period of security and stability.  This suddenly made Bibi Netanyahu’s candidacy competitive, and eventually won him his first term in office.

Peres tried to make up for lost ground with a forceful response to Hezbollah rocket attacks, “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in April ’96, with thousands of shells and bombs striking southern Lebanon for 16 days.  He was sure that there would be hardly any civilian casualties because of the IDF’s extensive advanced warnings that the population flee; instead, shells killed about 100 people seeking refuge at a UN base in Qana.  This tragedy lost him many Israeli-Arab votes, which would have been his winning edge over Netanyahu.

Moreover, back in 1975, Peres was instrumental in allowing the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement of militant religious nationalists to establish the first civilian settlement in the West Bank, a fateful opening to a trend that has undermined all peacemaking efforts since.  With his death, settler groups recall their disagreements but also praise him for helping the settler project in critical ways.  This is from the settlers’ Yesha Council:

“. . . we will remember the constant support to the security of the settlements, the creation of settlements in Samaria, the creation of Ofra and the progress of an infrastructure for the construction of additional settlements.”

Yet Peres achieved much in his lifetime that is truly praiseworthy.  For one thing, he served a very successful two-year stint as prime minister in that rotation agreement with Shamir following their virtual tie in the 1984 election.  He is credited then with ending Israel’s economic crisis, marked by an annual inflation rate that peaked at 450 percent.

As a remarkable young man who gained the notice and patronage of David Ben-Gurion, he laid the foundation for Israel’s defense industry; he later cultivated contacts with France that made Israel into a nuclear power.  This latter achievement is a mixed blessing, of course, but without Israel emerging as a military power, it would not have survived.    

Finally, it’s reasonable to believe that if he had beaten Netanyahu in 1996, he would have delivered a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians during his term.  Sadly, critical errors in judgment set in motion events that continue to plague Israel and Palestinians to this very day.

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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