Millions of words have been written over the last two days about Shimon Peres. But few captured the man and his international appeal in a more concise manner than the 22 words Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.
“Rest in Peace President Shimon Peres, a Man of War and a Man of the still elusive Peace in the Middle East,” he tweeted, the first Arab leader to publicly comment on the ninth president’s death.
There, in a mere 107 characters, Sheikh Khalid summed up the vast distance Peres traveled in his long public career, dating back to before the state was born. There, too, did he provide an explanation for the airlift of world leaders who have descended on Israel to pay their last respects to Peres.
Had Peres been only a man of war, the leaders would not have come, just as not a single foreign dignitary attended the funeral in 2012 of Yitzhak Shamir, a man who – like Peres – was numbered among the country’s founding fathers. They also did not throng to the funeral of Ariel Sharon – representatives of some 20 states arrived for that funeral, none of them heads of state – even though he withdrew from Gaza.
It was Peres’s relentless quest for the elusive peace that made him so popular abroad. It was this seemingly quixotic hunt for the New Middle East, a New Middle East that now seems light years away, that surely compelled US President Barack Obama to make the extraordinary move of ordering flags at federal buildings around the US – from Eureka, California, to Bangor, Maine – to fly at half-mast in honor of Peres.
And it doesn’t even matter that the peace, as Khalid noted, tarries and is elusive. What’s important in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of Obama, is the endless striving for peace: It’s the journey, not the destination.
For many who live here, however, journeys are great, but if the destination is not reached, or the destination actually arrived at is completely different from the expectation, then what’s the use of a great trip? Therefore, the deep dissonance between Peres’s lofty words about peace and the blood soaked reality of the post-Oslo period was so jarring for so many here.
But not overseas. There it was Peres’s journey from Mr. Security to Mr. Oslo that was uplifting and appealing, and which made him an international darling.
ISRAEL HAS in the past had leaders more popular abroad than at home. Former foreign minister Abba Eban immediately comes to mind. Tzipi Livni is another more recent example.
But Peres is different. Eban could not translate his stature abroad into greater appreciation for him at home; Peres did.
Because of Peres’s refusal to let go of his Oslo dream, because of never souring on the idea of being able to reconcile even with the current Palestinian leadership, he was appreciated abroad, even while at home part of the public deemed him naïve and scorned him for a dream that seemed totally out of step with the day-today terrorist reality on the streets.
But, eventually, the adulation he was accorded abroad bounced back here and greatly influenced how the Israeli public viewed him.
If presidents praised him, ministers mingled with him, and kings sought his advice, then there must be something to him. So when Peres became president in 2007, the country looked at him in a different light – more through the prism of how the world saw him – and embraced him as they had never done before.
ISRAEL’S PANTHEON of leaders numbers not a few hawks who turned into doves: Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Sharon, at least to a certain degree. Peres is among the top of that list.
“I have changed because the situation has changed,” Peres said in an interview in 2000 with a Church of God publication called Vision.
“When I thought that Israel was in danger, I was a terrible hawk.
I thought it my duty to do whatever I could to defend Israel to make it stronger. But that wasn’t a purpose; this was a must. Once I felt that we could go for peace, I changed, because that is a purpose.
War is a must; peace is a goal.”
And, indeed, much of his early years were spent fortifying Israel so it could withstand war.
From his years in the early 1950s as a Defense Ministry emissary in the US, to his days as deputy director-general and then director- general of the Defense Ministry, Peres was instrumental in developing Israel’s military strength, building its military industries and obtaining its reported nuclear deterrence capabilities.
Therefore, in 1974, when he became defense minister under Rabin, he had already developed a reputation as a security maven and, as Yossi Beilin wrote in a 2014 article in Foreign Policy, was considered at the time “the hawk of the Israeli cabinet.”
“He had reservations regarding territorial compromise and was strongly opposed to a Palestinian state,” said Beilin, who served as deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1995, when Peres was foreign minister. Beilin wrote that in an interview he did with Peres for the now defunct Labor Party paper Davar in 1976, the then-defense minister explained his view on the need for more settlements. Settlements, he argued, served as “the roots and the eyes of Israel.”
And Peres put his money where his mouth was.
As Beilin noted, Peres, in his 1978 book Tomorrow is Now, presented a plan “to develop settlements that stretched from the Sinai Peninsula to Israel’s border with Jordan. This network of settlements, he wrote, would defend Israel by ‘fortifying Jerusalem... [and establishing] the Jordan River as our security border.’ Meanwhile, settlements on the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967, ‘were designed as a checkpoint northeast to prevent an attack.’” But Peres did more than just build settlements along the contours of the Allon Plan, the blueprint that guided Labor’s settlement policies during those years, to prevent incursion along the borders and establish a ring around Jerusalem. He also, as defense minister, was an enabler of Gush Emunim in its push for settlements deep inside Samaria.
He, for instance, was involved in the Sebastia Compromise in 1975 whereby an unauthorized group of Gush Emunim activists who took over the old train station in Sebastia near Nablus would leave and relocate in a nearby military base at Kadum, which later became the settlement of Kedumim. That was a turning point in efforts to settle Samaria.
“Maybe this Arab generation cannot live in harmony and peace with Israel,” Peres wrote in his 1978 book, as Beilin noted.
“Perhaps this Arab generation can [agree] only to some interim arrangement, but the arrangement should not involve a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, neither the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
And then he changed, with Beilin attributing his shift leftward in part to the company he started to keep.
“As a rising star in the left-wing political bloc, he found himself the vice president of the Socialist International and became close with politicians such as former German chancellor Willy Brandt and former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. He began to meet with Palestinian leaders, mainly from east Jerusalem, to speak of the need to divide the land. And he fought against Labor Party hawks in supporting the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed by prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat – an agreement that included the Israeli evacuation of the Sinai settlements and air force bases that Peres had once championed.”
There was also both a personal and political component to this metamorphosis.
Personally, Peres was deeply hurt by the ugly tone of the 1981 election campaign against Begin, one of the most heated and bitter that Israel has known, when tomatoes were thrown at him and he was often heckled at campaign stops. Peres lost to Begin in that election by some 10,000 votes.
“The violence and threats Peres faced during those months permanently severed his connection to his former centrism,” Beilin noted.
In the run-up to the next national election in 1984 against Shamir, Beilin said, it was necessary for Peres to emphasize his more left-wing views as a way of distancing himself from the Likud. He wanted to set his policies on settlement construction and territorial compromise apart from those of Shamir.
That election led to Israel’s national unity government, and – as Beilin remembered – one of the toughest issues separating Labor and Likud in that coalition had to do with the settlements. Peres, who had by then changed his views about the necessity and wisdom of settlements, fought to reduce their construction. A compromise agreement was reached between the two parties whereby only six settlements would be built. As Beilin wrote, this culminated Peres’s transition, and “he was now known as a true dove.”
That transformation was further concretized when Peres became foreign minister under Rabin in 1992, and became a leading force behind the Oslo Accords.
Peres, who was once opposed to territorial compromise, now became its champion. Peres, who once supported settlement construction, was now a fierce opponent.
This is a transformation that captivated leaders and audiences abroad, largely because it represented a trajectory the world wishes for Israel as a whole. And it is a transformation that explains why a parade of foreign leaders is today beating a path to Jerusalem to pay Peres their last respects.