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Shimon Peres: A Political Biography
By Michael Bar-Zohar
782pp., NIS 128
In this slightly over-written book, Michael Bar-Zohar portrays Shimon Peres as a political phenomenon. He does it meticulously and in some ways even persuasively. Bar-Zohar has a long record of producing biographies, and his adoration for the hero of this one is not concealed (nor are his criticisms). The result is a rather rare blend which leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.
For many, Bar-Zohar says, Shimon Peres was and still is an enigma. Conflicting character traits were evident at an early stage. His Hebrew, for example, is rich and flowery, but still inflected with a Diaspora tone. Peres had enormous achievements in the Ministry of Defense, but never while wearing a uniform - neither during World War II nor in the War of Independence - and the author does not grant him high marks for that. He's a "mediocre" politician, but stands out as a statesman animated by a "spectacular vision."
For those who tend to acclaim Peres, the book is a confirmation of their image. For those who were suspicious of him, his life provides plenty of proof that their bias was warranted.
The list of Israelis who held a grudge against Peres has swelled continuously. That in itself does not prove the rancor was justified. On the other hand, the number of foreigners who were impressed by him has also increased. This, incidentally, is not unique to Peres. Gorbachev experienced a similar predicament - popularity abroad and disdain at home. Dislike of Peres was shared by chief of staff Yadin, by first foreign minister Moshe Sharett, and by defense minister (1953-55) Lavon. These were followed by Golda Meir, who detested him. So did Yitzhak Rabin for most of his life. Some politicians were jealous of Peres because he enjoyed greater access to Ben-Gurion.
It would be almost impossible to trace the origins of all this resentment and animosity, and yet, despite all this, the un-biased historian would have to admit that Peres's tangible achievements have been extraordinary. Some of these - like cultivating the firm support of French leaders to facilitate Israel's nuclear project - would not have been possible without his unique contribution. He herded them through the acquisition of arms, including planes, tanks and other weapons. The project, in which the French were contractual partners, was opposed by Golda Meir, Pinhas Sapir and Yigal Alon. In historical perspective - did they have a case? Certainly not. (Though it's true Peres would not have been able to advance the nuclear project without the active backing of Ben Gurion).
A similar success story occurred with Peres's initiative to obtain military assistance from West Germany. One should remember that in the late '50s and early '60s, strong reservations toward Germans were still prevalent in Israel. On the issue of relations with Germany, Peres adhered to Ben-Gurion's line of reconciliation, and was convinced that strengthening Israel economically, scientifically and militarily was more vital than engaging in the stale and futile demagogy practiced by the radical Right and Left.
Where did Peres go wrong? He committed several major errors of judgment both politically and diplomatically. Most appeared to relate to his obsessive preoccupation with credibility.
In 1985-1986, for example, while serving as prime minister under the rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir, Peres's popularity soared as he pushed Rabin (as defense minister) to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon. He was widely praised for the bold measures he undertook to check the inflationary spiral, and by introducing urgent reforms to stabilize the economy. With all that going for him, a smarter politician could have found a reason to call for elections and handily win. Peres missed that opportunity.
The second political failure occurred after the assassination of Rabin in November 1995. Peres refused to accept the advice of those who urged him to call early elections. He failed to realize that asking for a new mandate would establish him as the fairly elected leader rather than an inherited head-of-state. Amos Oz, for years a friend of Peres, told Bar-Zohar that the man "was not a good politician."
As for diplomatic oddities, it would suffice to cite one totally incomprehensible idea he suggested to prime minister Rabin in 1975.
Peres was then minister of defense. In discussions with the Americans, he rejected Henry Kissinger's demand that Israel withdraw from the Mitla Pass in Sinai. A crisis between the US and Israel ensued. US arms supplies were halted, and it was hinted that Peres wouldn't be welcome in Washington.
Peres presented Rabin with a scheme for breaking the deadlock. He suggested that Israeli forces withdraw from the Mitla passes, to be replaced by American forces on the Eastern side and a Soviet unit on the Western side. It sounded preposterous to Rabin, who couldn't conceive that Kissinger would invite Soviet troops to Sinai.
Bar-Zohar's book gives a fairly balanced look at the man Peres was and is today, but he might be advised in the future to be more diligent about getting names right. Peres nominated Prof. Amos de-Shalit, not Meir de-Shalit, to head a committee launching Israel's nuclear program. He considered Ya'acov Levinson as a possible minister of finance, not Avraham Levinson.
The writer is a former ambassador to Mexico and the Netherlands, and an ambassador at large.