Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue
– Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust), Roman historian and politician, (86 BCE-c.35 BCE)

It is our experience that political leaders do not always mean the opposite of what they say – Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat and politician (1919-2002)

It may be instructive to keep the sentiments conveyed in the above excerpts in mind while reading the following essay.

Glamour galore

Next week will usher in the opening of the fourth Israeli Presidential Conference.

Grandly titled Facing Tomorrow, its list of speakers features a cavalcade of internationally renowned dignitaries, drawn from fields spanning nearly the entire range of human endeavor, testifying to the president’s impressive drawing power. The program offers a myriad of intriguing and important topics that almost certainly will impinge on the lives of billions in the future.

As the conference follows this week’s award of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom to Peres by Barack Obama – both men were among the most “puzzling” recipients of the Nobel Peace prize ever – the media-hype surrounding the event is likely to be even more intense than usual.

Ostensibly, all this attention is well-merited.

After all, Peres is not only a figure of considerable world standing, having had almost every conceivable international honor bestowed on him – but has, to a large degree, restored the aura of presidential dignity to the office, so severely undermined by his predecessor.

So next week’s Facing Tomorrow Conference might be an apt opportunity for a glimpse at Peres’s (apparently forgotten) “Yesterday” and an assessment of the route he has traversed in attaining his position at the pinnacle of world acclaim.

The fruits of failure

Peres’s extraordinary ability, passion and energy are beyond dispute. But so it would seem is his unbridled ambition, making the caveats in the introductory excerpts highly relevant.

During the state’s first decade, as a young protege of David Ben-Gurion, he is credited with playing a leading role in setting up much of the foundations for the nascent nation’s military infrastructure that has been so crucial in ensuring its survival and its technological edge – including Israel Aircraft Industries (today Israel Aerospace Industries), the acquisition of advanced combat aircraft from France and the establishment of the nuclear facility in Dimona.

As defense minister as the time of the Entebbe raid in 1976, many identify him as providing the political will to push through the decision to carry out the now legendary operation.

But perversely, it has not been Peres’s successes – but his failures – that have catapulted him to international stardom. It was not his’s dramatic feats in the service of his nation that brought him global celebrity status, but his disastrous fiascoes in the pursuit of his wildly unrealistic illusions.

It was the Oslo Accords – which have long since imploded into bloody ruin – that brought him the 1994 Nobel Peace prize.

It was his lofty vision of a “New Middle East” – with peace and prosperity stretching from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf – that caught the imagination of so many but now appears nothing but a ludicrous delusion.

Thus it was not his considerable contributions to Israeli security that made him such a sought after figure on the global stage, but rather his adoption of the role of supranational statesman on a noble quest for regional peace, a quest that precipitated nothing but death and devastation.

‘Tomorrow’ as a brand-name

Peres has always been obsessed with “Tomorrow.” In many ways he has appropriated it as his profession trademark, in an endeavor to brand himself as future-oriented statesman. And while there was much to substantiate that image in an earlier era, his predictive acumen seems to have deserted him in later years.

One of his first forays in to “Tomorrow-territory” was a programmatic book he authored as chairman of the Labor Party, just after it had lost power for the first time, to Menachem Begin’s Likud. Titled Tomorrow is Now and published in 1978, it laid out Peres’s prescriptive vision for the future conduct of the affairs of the nation.

In many ways, the book – available only in Hebrew – is an astonishing document.

For those who are only familiar with the post-Oslowian version of Peres, it offers staggering surprises.

For the citizens of Israel – and anyone concerned with the fate of the Jewish state – it raises deeply disturbing questions regarding the judgment, credibility and integrity of those who have served in positions of senior leadership, and serious doubts as to the trust that can be placed in their pronouncements to the nation.

Prudent pre-Oslowian predictions

In Tomorrow is Now, pre-Oslowian Peres gives a chillingly accurate prediction of would occur if the policies endorsed by post-Oslowian Peres were in fact adopted, sternly cautioning as to the realities liable to emerge should Israel accept the idea of a Palestinian state.

“The establishment of such [a Palestinian] state means the inflow of combat-ready Palestinian forces (more than 25,000 men under arms) into Judea and Samaria; this force, together with the local youth, will double itself in a short time. It will not be short of weapons or other [military] equipment, and in a short space of time, an infrastructure for waging war will be set up in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Israel will have problems in preserving day-to-day security, which may drive the country into war, or undermine the morale of its citizens.”

He was of course proved right – for these were precisely the realities that precipitated the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield Judea and Samaria in 2002 – and later Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009.

Pre-Oslowian Peres continued, warning of the grave consequences further territorial concessions advocated by post-Oslowian Peres would entail: “If a Palestinian state is established, it will be armed to the teeth.

Within it there will be bases of the most extreme terrorist forces, who will be equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft shoulder-launched rockets, which will endanger not only random passersby, but also every airplane and helicopter taking off in the skies of Israel and every vehicle traveling along the major traffic routes in the Coastal Plain.

“In time of war, the frontiers of the Palestinian state will constitute an excellent staging point for mobile forces to mount attacks on infrastructure installations vital for Israel’s existence, to impede the freedom of action of the Israeli air force in the skies over Israel, and to cause bloodshed among the population...in areas adjacent to the frontier line.”

Territory’s enduring significance

But it was not only low-intensity conflict and terror-related dangers that concerned pre-Oslowian Peres. He expressed grave concern over conventional warfare threats as well. Although post-Oslowian Peres commonly dismisses the importance of territory in the age of modern weaponry, pre- Oslowian Peres knew better, articulating a cogent rationale why the enhanced range, mobility and firepower of today’s weapon systems enhance its strategic significance: “In 1948, it may have been possible to defend the ‘thin waist’ of Israel’s most densely populated area, when the most formidable weapon used by both sides was the cannon of limited mobility and limited fire-power.

“In the 20th century, with the development of the rapid mobility of armies, the defensive importance of territorial expanse has increased... Without a border which affords security, a country is doomed to destruction in war,” he wrote.

Regarding Israel’s minuscule dimensions, pre-Oslowian Peres elaborated: “It is, of course, doubtful whether territorial expanse can provide absolute deterrence. However, the lack of minimal territorial expanse places a country in a position of an absolute lack of deterrence. This in itself constitutes an almost compulsive temptation to attack Israel from all directions.”

Dismissing Arab credibility

Particularly disconcerting is the dramatic dichotomy between Peres’s pre-Oslowian denigration of the value of agreements with the Arabs and his post-Oslowian enthusiasm for them – particularly with regard to demilitarization.

Pre-Oslowian Peres warned: “Demilitarization of the West Bank also seems a dubious measure. The major issue is not [attaining] an agreement, but ensuring its actual implementation in practice. The number of agreements which the Arabs have violated is no less than number which they have kept.”

It is difficult to imagine that any later, post- Oslo, experience has served to enhance his confidence on this matter.

Indeed, Peres maintained his deep cynicism regarding Palestinian trustworthiness right up to the conclusion of the Oslo Accords.

Amazingly, in his The New Middle East, published in 1993, he asks: “Even if the Palestinians agree that their state will have no army or weapons, who can guarantee that a Palestinian army would not be mustered later to encamp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches to the lowlands?”

Indeed who?

He continues: “And if the Palestinian state would be unarmed, how would it block terrorist acts perpetrated by extremists, fundamentalists or irredentists?”

Indeed how?

Peres on settlements – yesterday.

But perhaps the most astounding of all is pre-Oslowian Peres’s stance on the issue of “settlements” and the imperative he saw for their development. He urged Israel:

"to create a continuous stretch of new settlements; to bolster Jerusalem and the surrounding hills, from the north, from the east, and from the south and from the west, by means of the establishment of townships, suburbs and villages – Ma’aleh Adumim, Ofra, Gilo, Beit El, Givon – to ensure that the capital and its flanks are secured, and underpinned by urban and rural settlements.

These settlements will be connected to the Coastal Plain and the Jordan Valley by new lateral axis roads; the settlements along the Jordan River are intended to establish the Jordan River as the [Israel’s] de facto security border; however, it is the settlements on the western slopes of the hills of Samaria and Judea which will deliver us from the curse of Israel’s ‘narrow waist.’”

No kidding! He really wrote that.

Just imagine how distressing it must be for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who rallied to implement pre-Oslowian Peres’s call to “deliver us from the curse of Israel’s “narrow waist” and establish settlements that post-Oslowian Peres now denounces.

Would a bitter sense of betrayal not be totally understandable – even inevitable?

A crisis of credibility?

The breathtaking divergence between the positions of pre-and post-Oslowian Peres raised hugely troubling questions as to the credibility of Israeli leaders – and the store the Israel citizenry – indeed the Jewish people – can place in their words.

While people are, of course, entitled to change their minds – and Peres may indeed have had a change of mind – one cannot but wonder what could have possibly induced him:

• to abandon a position that proved so well-founded for one that proved so wildly unfounded?
• to adopt a policy he previously rejected as too perilous for the nation’s security – particularly as his forebodings all proved justified?
• to urge his people down a path that he himself warned was disastrous – especially as all the predicted perils did in fact materialize?

How can such conduct be reconciled with a genuine concern for the national interest? And if it cannot, what conclusions should be drawn?

Perhaps the insights in introductory excerpts as to the nature of “Ambition” might provide a clue to the answer?

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