For a few days in April 1996, I followed in Shimon Peres’s giant footsteps. Or his camel tracks, to be precise.
I was accompanying a band of Negev residents and local academics reconstructing the trip taken by Palmahniks and No’ar Ha’oved youths in January 1945 in which they mapped the area and noted water sources and natural phenomena in the southern Negev, an area ruled out of bounds to Jews by order of the British Mandate.
Organizer Sefi Hanegbi told me he was inspired to reconstruct the trail because “it was the first example of Israeli chutzpah I had ever found recorded.”
The initial daring trip ended prematurely when the group was caught by the British in Umm Rashrash on the Red Sea, having rushed into the water after 11 days in the treacherous terrain. Fortunately, they had hidden the written material in milk pails on the side of the camels and the information was considered crucial in helping the IDF conquer the area where Eilat was established four years later.
It was reportedly on this journey that Shimon Perski, then-secretary-general of the No’ar Ha’oved youth movement, changed his name to Peres, after zoologist Heinrich Mendelssohn pointed out the splendid vulture (“Peres” in Hebrew) which then ruled the skies.
There are other cases of Israeli chutzpah involving Peres.
At 93, the Polish-born Peres – who as I write these lines is fighting for his life after suffering a stroke – has been a part of Israel’s landscape for so long that he is inseparable from its history, always giving credit to his mentor David Ben-Gurion.
I had more than a camel’s-eye view of Peres when I was The Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter from 1995 to the end of 1999. Tellingly, I rarely saw his late wife, Sonia. Although he constantly spoke of her – and her modesty – it was no secret that she shunned public life, while being active in several charities, and that later she refused to move into the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, having begged him to turn the job down and enjoy their twilight years together.
Perhaps Shimon Peres simply could not envisage a twilight. Director- general of the Defense Ministry at the young age of 29, he has been, among other things, finance minister (a position in which he successfully stalled runaway inflation), defense minister, foreign minister, vice premier and prime minister, hopping among political parties including Mapai, Rafi, the Alignment, Labor and Kadima.
Miraculously, Peres the politician morphed into Peres the statesman as the country’s ninth president.
When he celebrated his 90th birthday three years ago, there was no Marilyn Monroe to breathlessly sing “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” but the guests included Barbra Streisand, who sang an unforgettable version of the “Avinu Malkeinu” prayer, and actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, along with former US president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
It was a far cry from the man who was nicknamed “The Loser” for serially failing to get elected to the top positions he so desired – and, worse still, failing to acknowledge it, because he often came tantalizingly close to achieving his goals.
In an act that would continue to haunt him for another decade, in 1997 he famously asked the Labor Party central committee: “Am I a loser?” and received the resounding response: “Yes.”
When journalist Orly Azoulay-Katz wrote a Hebrew biography of him, following his election loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, she called it The Man Who Didn’t Know How to Win.
The show of love Peres received as president, when he finally won the coveted position in 2007 (after Moshe Katsav’s disgrace and imprisonment), was far from what he had felt during his political career.
His big 90th birthday bash was billed “Facing Tomorrow” and took place in Jerusalem’s spacious International Convention Center. Peres, whose earliest roles included not only mapping the Negev but, according to foreign reports, building Israel’s only nuclear reactor in Dimona, never lost his curiosity and passion for thinking ahead. In recent years, his love for nanotechnology, brain research, green technology and Israel’s hi-tech advantage has been almost obsessive. It was the last thing he discussed in public on September 13 just before he felt unwell.
His most significant international achievement was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for his role in the Oslo Accords, although this was undoubtedly his most controversial move as far as the Israeli public was concerned.
Even Peres, the perennial optimist who coined the term “the New Middle East,” later hinted that the Oslo peace process, followed by a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks, was a disappointment.
He was not a popular politician, particularly after the Likud came to power in 1977 and he swung to the Left. But his “stinking maneuver,” when he double-crossed prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, his senior national coalition partner, by conspiring with the Shas Party, under Arye Deri, to form a new government without the Likud in 1990, is still considered a bold, if unsuccessful, attempt to become prime minister.
I found Peres often charming but not fond of criticism.
When I heard him once give Labor the credit for reuniting Jerusalem in the Six Day War, I pointed out that it was the apolitical IDF, rather than a party, that deserved the praise.
His smile immediately disappeared and his face showed his displeasure.
His political rivalry with Rabin was open and intense. It was Rabin who referred to Peres as “an unrelenting underminer.”
The only time I saw anything approaching friendship between the two was in footage from the fateful peace rally where Rabin was assassinated in November 1995.
One of my strongest memories of Peres stems from the first anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.
Ahead of the Knesset memorial session, I called Peres’s office to see if he had a prepared speech. He answered the phone in person and invited me to collect a copy of the text. There were no aides in sight and it struck me as strange that the man whom most thought would inherit the premiership was so alone.
It’s another reason his promotion to international superstar status was so amazing.
And he clearly loved his role as sprightly “elder statesman.”
He surrounded himself with youngsters, untiringly promoting social programs and his vision of peace.
Some joked he never fully gave up politics, and certainly he did not retire from public life, turning the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa into his center of operations.
The world leaders and former leaders who flocked to Jerusalem for his birthday would not have come that way for anyone else. And that’s why, despite my reservations, I admired his mega parties and conventions.
Peres was perpetually overly optimistic, but his basic premise – that we haven’t lost the hope of 2,000 years, in the words of the national anthem, to live freely, in peace – still holds.
Peres’s political obituary has often been prematurely written.
“Peres is like the mythical phoenix. He fell down 20 times, and every time he got up and resurrected himself,” former MK Michael Bar-Zohar, his official biographer, told Channel 10 on September 13, adding, as Peres was put into an artificially induced coma: “What keeps him alive is the passion to act all of the time. He didn’t fear death, he never even saw it as an option.”
“I’m not a quitter,” as Peres himself once put it.