NO ISRAELI leader personifies the nation’s history more than Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, who was already an adult and a promising young star in the political firmament when the State of Israel came into being.
No one has held more ministerial portfolios than Peres, and no one has bounced back with as much vigor after a string of failures.
But he has also had many triumphs, not the least of which are the founding of Israel Aircraft Industries, which developed into Israel Aerospace Industries; the conception of Israel’s nuclear program; the cultivation of France as the prime supplier of planes, boats and armaments to Israel; the facilitating, in his capacity as defense minister, of the Entebbe rescue mission in 1976; and later as finance minister, the mega whittling of inflation which had risen to more than 400 percent.
Perhaps Peres’s greatest triumph in view of the electoral losses he suffered over the years – including his first bid for the presidency and previous campaigns for prime minister and leadership of the Labor Party – was being courted by the Center Left, which in recent weeks has urged him to abandon the presidency and lead it to victory in the Knesset elections.
It was flattering, and if Peres even considered taking up the gauntlet, he has refrained from sharing that thought with the media.
But long before early elections were called, Peres said many times that he much preferred being president to being a politician.
When he was a politician and he asked for something, the response was almost always negative. When he asks for something as president, “everyone rushes to volunteer. No one refuses,” he says.
Interviewed on the occasion of the 80th anniversary celebrations of The Jerusalem Post, Peres – when asked how he maintains his eternal optimism – replied that perhaps it was because he was able to achieve what he did against all odds. Many of the proposals he made were rejected by others as not do-able. But he nonetheless got things done, because he remained true to his dreams.
Peres had no experience in diplomacy when he started wooing France early in his career, and yet he succeeded in getting the French government to go out of its way in providing Israel with military support.
Peres had neither experience nor training as an economist, and yet he took Israel out of an extreme inflationary era. He had no background in engineering, and when he suggested that tiny Israel build a nuclear reactor, everyone jeered and told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
With hindsight, the president can see that he was right on these and many other counts, “so why shouldn’t I be an optimist?” he asks. “Optimists may be wrong, but so are pessimists. There’s no life without mistakes.”
Asked what he considered his worst mistakes and what he would have done differently, Peres prefers to all but ignore the question, saying “I never look back, so I don’t know.” He acknowledges, however, that it was more unusual to do things right than to do things wrong.
He was fortunate, he says, in that he had been given extraordinary opportunities by founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who to this day remains his mentor.
Like Peres, Ben-Gurion had no experience in economics, and basically relied on his gut feelings. Peres could come to him with a project and Ben-Gurion, who wasn’t enamored of that particular idea, would ask how much it cost, and Peres would say $1 million.
To which Ben-Gurion would reply: “That’s a lot of money,” and that would be the end of the proposed project. A few days later, Peres would come with another project and Ben-Gurion, who approved of the new idea, would ask how much it would cost and Peres would reply “$50 million,” to which Ben- Gurion’s response was, “Oh, that’s nothing.” This was how Peres learned economics.
There were many things he learned from Ben-Gurion, but the most important lessons, he says, were never to lie and always to be daring, even if you make mistakes.
Another lesson he learned was that all experts “are experts for what did happen, not for what may happen.”
While many people now believe that the Oslo Accords were a mistake, Peres – who signed them in his capacity as foreign minister and was aware of all the secret negotiations that preceded the signing – continues to believe that it was the right thing to do. He continues to maintain a close relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who he has repeatedly said is a partner for peace. Peres is still convinced of this and cannot understand why others disagree.
“He had the courage to publicly say that he is in favor of peace and against terror,” the president says, emphasizing that Abbas had also stated clearly that he did not want to return to his birthplace of Safed, and that the Palestinian refugee issue should be resolved in “a just and agreed-upon way.”
Although statements made by Abbas in Arabic differ from those he makes in English, Peres chooses to overlook that distinction, saying that a statement in any language remains a statement.
“He said something serious and profound. Who else in the Arab world spoke so openly and so loudly? Does it matter what language he speaks? And he was attacked, and there are still threats against him,” Peres argues in defense of Abbas.
Since the breakdown of the peace process, Peres has consistently urged the government to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
“I think there are two things in life you cannot choose: your parents and your neighbors,” he says.
For those who reject a two-state solution, he adds: “There is no one-state solution. There is a one-state problem. A binational state is a binational war forever.”
The turmoil which has permeated the region over the past year, especially the volatile situations in Syria, Libya and Yemen, has nothing to do with Israel, says Peres.
“What’s happening in the Middle East is basically disconnected from Israel,” he says. “The fanatics try to get Israel involved because of our incomplete business with the Palestinians. We have to complete it and let the Arab peoples decide their own destiny, without reference to the situation between us and the Palestinians.”
In the president’s perception, the overall situation in the Middle East will improve once it passes its period of transition from an agricultural era to a scientific one.
It cannot continue to live in the old agricultural age, he says. “Sooner or later it will have to enter the scientific age.”
Peres also touches on Iran, and says that sanctions are having an effect, and not just economically. Citing one aspect, Peres says that he read there are six million Iranians suffering from cancer who are unable to get treatment due to sanctions.
“If they want to return to a normal life, let them become normal,” says Peres.
“But they are irrational... As long as they’re the center of the terror, despite their denials, and as long as they call for a new Shoah, what choice does the world have?” Peres endorses the policy that US President Barack Obama has adopted toward Iran. “I have the highest respect for him. I trust what he says about Iran. I don’t have any reason to doubt it,” says Peres, explaining that he understands Obama’s caution in holding back on a military strike against Iran.
“It is an American tradition to try to achieve goals without military means, but never to put the military means out of the picture,” he says.
Peres still has a year and a half left in which to complete his seven-year term of office. Unless the law is amended to enable him to continue, it will be the first time in decades that he will find himself without a title – although conceivably he would instantly be named president of the Peres Peace Center, with which he has an abiding relationship.
Peres is not concerned about losing a title. “All my life, the problem has not been about what to be, but what to do.”
Although his leadership qualities had already surfaced when he was a teenager, he had no political aspirations at the time, and might never have developed them had Ben-Gurion not decided to take him under his wing.
Peres had dreamt of being a kibbutznik and cultivating the land with his own hands. He was not interested in money or comforts, but in noble ideals that also embraced literature.
His mother, Sarah (née Meltzer), was a librarian who imbued him with a love for books. When he was a small child she read him many stories in Hebrew and Yiddish, and often sang to him in Russian.
He was reminded of her during his visit to Russia last month, when some of the songs performed in his honor included melodies that she had sung to him.
As an adolescent, Peres was sent by Hanoar Ha’oved (founded in 1924, now known as Hanoar Ha’oved Vehalomed, working and studying youth) to the Ben- Shemen Agricultural Youth Village, which he describes as a “republic of young people aged 15-16.” He worked in the fields and the stables, wrote poetry in his spare time, and also played a role in the running of the republic. This may well have been his internship for later life.
Peres wasn’t the most disciplined of students and tended to cut classes in chemistry and physics, because curiously these were subjects he didn’t like – though today he is one of Israel’s leading advocates for science and technology. The subjects that interested him as a youth were history, poetry and social affairs.
He was part of a Ben-Shemen nucleus that founded Kibbutz Alumot in the Lower Galilee. He also lived on Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley. Curiously his last ministerial position, before his election to the presidency, was that of Negev and Galilee development minister.
Peres is devoted to the Negev because of Ben-Gurion, who spent his final years there and is buried in Sde Boker; and he loves the Galilee because it is part of his own past.
Whether or not he has a title after July 2014 is immaterial to him. Peres will just continue to do what he believes will help make Israel a greater nation than it already is. Brain research is a particular source of fascination for him, and he is engaged in promoting it in Israel and abroad.
Many people who have won elections haven’t achieved much afterwards, he observes. “I lost elections, but never lost my dreams. Most of them were realized. Most of what I did was not because of a title, but because of a dream.”
Peres, who has lived through wars, political battles and personal defeats, has absolutely no intention of retiring from public life when he turns 91 – soon after the end of his tenure.
“I like difficult things,” he says. “I don’t like vacations and I don’t like to be pampered. It’s boring. I prefer challenges that make life interesting. There is no important thing that you can achieve easily.”
Although his family was Zionist, its history on Israeli soil did not begin till 1932, when the president’s father came to the Land of Israel where he worked for two years before bringing out his wife and children.
Peres, now a regular reader of The Jerusalem Post, who knew its founding editor Gershon Agron (whom he refers to by his original name, Agronsky) admits that he did not read the paper in the early years of his adult life because, until he was 26, he didn’t know any English. Today, his English is not only fluent, but he has an enviable vocabulary. He also made history with Agron’s son Dani when they worked together in the founding of Israel Aircraft Industries.
Even before Peres could read the paper, he was aware of its reputation. He says he believes that the State of Israel owes The Jerusalem Post a great deal for bringing propaganda- free news of Israel to the world.