Last week marked the 88th birthday of President Shimon Peres. As someone who has
been privileged to work at his side for 27 years, I feel the need to share my
impressions of this unique statesman. My view, while colored by
proximity, still strives to be objective.
I was invited to join the inner
sanctum of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, initially as media adviser
to then-prime minister Peres, from 1984-86. I had the opportunity to see from
close up the gap between Israeli’s cynical media image of Peres and the man
The media portrayed him as a talented yet somehow Machiavellian
politician, more often than not motivated by self interest.
The Peres I
grew to know is different – a man totally dedicated to Israel’s
well-being. I believe that Peres is a great statesman and a proud
patriot, yet an unhappy politician.
He never escaped political
controversy but always disliked it. Peres is a complex personality reflecting
• An Israeli “moshavnik” and a cosmopolitan “man of the
• An abstract intellectual and a man of action.
• A man of
grand design and vision, but with patience, and sometimes an obsession, for
• A total loner, a voice in the wilderness when need be, and a
man seeking public recognition.
• A man dealing with the realpolitik of
the day and yet totally mesmerized by the future – never by the burden and
nostalgia of the past.
These characteristics led him to achieve many
historic accomplishments that only on the surface may seem contrasting at times
– Dimona as opposed to Oslo.
Peres, as a young deputy defense minister,
achieved Israel’s most important security asset through the creation, with
France, of the Dimona nuclear reactor.
Peres was also the father of our
aviation industry and of many other defense industries and ties. Yet he
understood at the same time that Israel’s military power could only be of
long-term consequence if it were leveraged into an accommodation with our Arab
This was true in relation to peace with Egypt and Jordan, and
is a component in the fundamental understanding that peace in the Middle East is
impossible without a historic reconciliation with the Palestinians.
understanding, in turn, led Peres to initiate the Oslo process and to a historic
divorce from the nightmare of a Greater Israel.
Peres claimed years ago
that this path would lead to a two-state solution, a view today espoused by the
leaders of the Israeli Right.
After our victories at war, Peres began to
view the Arabs as potential good neighbors.
From the very moment I met
him, Peres was an advocate of regional economic development. He spoke often of a
modern and educated young generation among our Arab neighbors taking over from
despots, which led him to his nowfamous vision of “a New Middle
Skeptics left him unimpressed. He used to tell me, “I have many
opponents, but one stable ally – the future.”
In all fields of activity –
society, peace, the economy (in 1985, he brought inflation down from 1,000
percent to 0) – Peres combined realpolitik with a great sense of optimism and
was never stalled by nostalgia or skeptics.
“What would I do with
pessimism?” he often asked rhetorically.
I can give many examples of his
characteristics, but I will focus on one, taken from the Oslo process. His
negotiations with PLO leader Yasser Arafat were difficult and tiring, with
endless bickering over every inch of land, fragment of security and facet of
It came to a peak during the interimagreement
negotiations over the future of Hebron. Israel had agreed to Palestinian
self-rule in seven of the eight largest Palestinian cities, excluding Hebron,
due to the Jewish presence in its Old City and in nearby Kiryat Arba, and
security considerations related to the settlers living there.
clear to all of us involved in these negotiations that the Palestinians could
not accept control and hold elections in all West Bank cities, excluding Hebron,
then with a Palestinian population of roughly 118,000 and a Jewish presence of
Peres and Arafat met for a dramatic session at Taba. Peres, who was
foreign minister at the time, understood Arafat’s predicament, but also knew
that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was under tremendous pressure from the
settlers and the army not to hand over Hebron.
Peres decided to offer
Arafat a compromise: The city would come under Palestinian control, yet
limited security authority and Israeli jurisdiction over the Jewish
the city, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Kiryat Arba. After nights and
days of almost brutal negotiations, Arafat was convinced to
Now it was up to Peres to convince the cabinet. Rabin convened an
inner-cabinet meeting. Generals present voiced opposition to the deal, warning
of a settler uproar.
In response, Peres virtually exploded and turned to
the prime minister: “Yitzhak, we must make a decision tonight that is even more
fundamental than the future of Hebron. Is our country run by the settlers, or by
the army, or by the elected government?”
The room turned quiet. Peres had just
shattered three Israeli myths – that history should dictate decisions about our
future; that the settlers represent the bridge between past and future; and that
political decisions related to security would be led by the army, rather than
the political leadership. Rabin agreed with Peres and the compromise proposal
This episode, I believe, reflects also our present
predicament: Will Israel continue on the path of a two-state solution, and make
decisions based on its liberal democratic values, or give in to religious,
messianic concepts and narrow, shortsighted security considerations?
short term we do not know the answer, and even Peres these days is
As far as the long-term future is
concerned, Peres remains a visionary, an activist and an optimist. He believes
in the ability to translate strength built also on scientific and technological
progress into a better society at peace with the world and its
In many ways, I see Shimon Peres as Israel’s architect for the
future. I am convinced that if Peres were left to his devices, he would achieve
peace in the region, as he understands better than anyone the translation of
power into goodwill, the need to respect the other and the art of creative
Happy birthday, Mr. Peres!
Uri Savir is the president of the
Peres Center for Peace and was Israel’s chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords.