Savir's Corner: Happy birthday, Mr. Peres!

I'm convinced if Peres were left to his devices, he would achieve peace in the region, as he understands translation of power into goodwill.

August 25, 2011 21:58
President Shimon Peres

President Shimon Peres. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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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 himself.

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 fascinating contrasts:

• An Israeli “moshavnik” and a cosmopolitan “man of the world.”

• An abstract intellectual and a man of action.

• A man of grand design and vision, but with patience, and sometimes an obsession, for details.

• 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 neighbors.

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.

This 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 East.”

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 national pride.

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.

It was 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 530.

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 with limited security authority and Israeli jurisdiction over the Jewish presence in the city, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Kiryat Arba. After nights and days of almost brutal negotiations, Arafat was convinced to agree.

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 passed unanimously.

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?

In the short term we do not know the answer, and even Peres these days is uncharacteristically skeptical.

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 neighbors.

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 compromise.

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.

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