The next few weeks mark a round of farewells for Shimon Peres as he winds up his seven-year term as president of the State of Israel.
Immediately after Passover, he joined in several Mimouna celebrations for the last time in his capacity as president. A week later, he participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies – again for the last time as president. This week, he is participating in Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and in a series of Independence Day events – yet again for the last time as president.
It isn’t quite the end of a 70-year career of public service. Operating out of the Peres Center for Peace, Peres looks to continue to meet with world leaders as Israel’s de facto ambassador-at-large. However, come July, he is to be neither an appointed nor an elected official representative of Israel.
When reporters from The Jerusalem Post met with him in late April and asked about the legacy he believes that he has left, his reply was that he had not thought about leaving a legacy. However, if he had to define what national leadership meant to him, it was serving one’s country and one’s people rather than ruling.
“I hope I helped to bring more unity, more parity, more understanding,” he said in retrospect, adding that he tried to do his best to represent the country.
Indeed, none of his eight predecessors traveled both inside and outside Israel as frequently and to as many destinations as Peres. Anyone who has ever traveled abroad with him can vouch for the warmth with which he has been received by royalty, heads of state, government leaders, parliamentary plenums and Jewish communities around the world. While his political views may not always be popular in Israel, in other countries he is hailed as one of the most respected of the world’s elder statesmen, a man of peace who contributes to the prestige of his country.
There is limited authority in the presidency, said Peres – an office that he says wields a “powerless power” – but nevertheless, he personally felt an obligation to tell the truth about developments within the country and to improve the understanding of Israel’s situation both at home and abroad.
Looking back, he believes that he was able to contribute in introducing centralized efforts within the domain of science, a field that he is convinced will enable Israel to maintain an edge in the global community. Israel has already earned international acclaim for its scientific and technological achievements, and with a coordinated focus on brain research, Peres is confident that Israel will reach new heights in discovering the secrets of the brain.
He has contributed to educational projects, in particular to enabling all soldiers who have completed their high-school studies to earn a bachelor’s degree.
However, as Israel celebrates, it is only natural to speak to a man who has played such an integral role in shaping what the country has become. Peres went back even further to the fateful day of November 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted for the partition of British Mandate and the creation of both an independent Jewish state and an Arab state. While Jews throughout the Yishuv were dancing and singing in the streets, Peres, then 24, was not among the merrymakers. He was at Hagana headquarters planning for the day after. He couldn’t participate in the elation, he said, because he knew that war would begin the following day. He had met in Jerusalem with Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion, who a few months later became Israel’s founding prime minister.
Ben-Gurion had told him: “Today there is singing. Tomorrow there will be bloodshed.”
And indeed war began the next day.
What became known as the War of Independence had a miraculous outcome, despite being surrounded by seven Arab armies and having access to a meager supply of funds and weapons. Israel desperately required guns, tanks and ships, but there was an arms embargo against the Jewish state.
“The very countries who voted for the establishment of Israel at the United Nations put an arms embargo on us,” Peres recalled, remarking that the Arabs received arms from the Soviet Union. “It was a very tense and difficult situation.”
Nonetheless, tiny Israel with a population of only 650,000 pitted against 40 million Arabs, won the war.
In those days, no one dared to dream that Israel would progress to the extent that it has. Now, 66 years later, Peres, remembering that period, said, “The reality that followed the establishment of the State of Israel exceeded the dream.”
Case in point: When the country was born, its leaders hoped for a million Jewish people and now there are more than eight million citizens.
Additionally, Israel did not expect to become one of the top scientific and agricultural countries, he continued, remembering that “we had a war before we had a state.”
Noting that Israel started from “a low point,” Peres attributed Israel’s courage of the people and the readiness of the young generation to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of the state. He did not forget to point out that “we had great leaders.”
The War of Independence lasted for a year, but several cease-fires during that period gave Israel much needed breathing space, enabling more training and the acquisition of arms.
“We lost some of our best boys. The cost in life was unbelievably high,” said Peres in a tone of sadness that made it seem as if they had fallen only yesterday.
Among those who fell were Holocaust survivors facing one tragedy after another, but who had been proud to fight under the Israeli flag – the flag of a Jewish state. Their sacrifice and the subsequent suffering of Holocaust survivors, to whom the state did not give sufficient financial and emotional support, has not received due recognition. Even today, according to a Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel report published last month, at least 50,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel are living below the poverty line.
“We cannot excuse ourselves for the way they are treated. It cannot be excused or justified,” Peres said when asked about the report.
Reminded that he had been both a finance minister and prime minister and that nothing had been done to improve the lot of Holocaust survivors then, Peres responded that when he had taken on the finance portfolio, he had inherited an inflation rate of 450 percent.
“My task was to save the country from deep crisis. Few people thought that we could escape this hyperinflation.”
Harking back to an earlier period, Peres said, “There were times before when we had only $25 million in our reserves.”
Dov Yosef was then the rationing and supply minister, Pinhas Lavon was the agriculture minister and Peres, though not a minister during this era of austerity, represented the Defense Ministry. It was no easy task diving $25m. for the three necessary demands that were far in excess of the means. The defense needs were not in proportion to the population, said Peres, but in proportion to the danger. The supply needs were obvious.
“We didn’t have enough food.”
There were swamps in the North and deserts in the South.
“Only now, we have such unusual agriculture. Everyone suffered – not only in terms of life and death, but also in terms of economic needs.”
Succeeding in overcoming all these challenges has in Peres’s opinion made Israel such a great nation.
“To answer outsized demands, we made outsized efforts.”
As a student and a young man, Peres lived on a kibbutz – in fact he helped found, lived on and worked in several kibbutzim.
“When I was on a kibbutz we didn’t have a penny. We lived in tents and worked from sunrise to sunset. Everything was in short supply except the sacrifice of the people which was the only surplus.”
Even now, Peres continues to adhere to that modest way of life. Though away from the kibbutz for many years, he has continued to visit kibbutzim across the country especially those in the Negev.
“The kibbutz is the most just society,” he said, praising it for justice, comradeship and freedom.
“Everyone who has been on a kibbutz carries it in his heart.”
If anything, Shimon Peres proves that you can take the man out of the kibbutz, but not the kibbutz out of the man.