From wonder boy to national icon

This was the man who had sprung from Mapai’s youth division to key positions in the defense establishment, a Ben-Gurion appointee and confidant when only 29.

September 29, 2016 21:00
4 minute read.
shimon peres dies

A photograph comemmorating former president Shimon Peres, who died on September 28, 2016. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Winter 1957 – The 34-year-old director- general of the Ministry of Defense stood tall, handsome. In a thick accent with deep-throated guttural ‘r’s he spoke without notes. In a matter of fact voice, he told the waiting entranced American- Jewish leaders, “There are six results Israel achieved in the Sinai campaign.”

The campaign had swept the Egyptians, armed by the Soviets via Czechoslovakia, out of Gaza and Sinai in 100 hours.

This was the man who had sprung from Mapai’s youth division to key positions in the defense establishment, a Ben-Gurion appointee and confidant when only 29.

By 1957, he had become the architect of an alliance with France, whose nighttime shipments of trucks and light tanks enabled Israel to rout the Egyptian, while French planes flew cover over Israel to free the Israel aircraft to attack Egyptian positions.

Unknown then to all but a few of the “enlightened,” he had led the search for nuclear development, and over the years laid the foundations for production of arms and “research” rockets, spurring the merger of science and technology which Ben-Gurion saw as Israel’s future in the face of Arab animosity: quality versus quantity.

In this work, Peres was also the consummate schemer, by-passing the Foreign Ministry, and keeping most of the cabinet in the dark. He and Moshe Dayan, then IDF chief of staff, convinced Ben-Gurion to launch the Sinai campaign, and there are probably conspiracies yet to be uncovered.

In 1959, elected to the Knesset, he was made deputy minister of defense.

A young man so competent and single- minded had pushed Israel into fields which fainter hearts opposed. He and the young guard threatened the hegemony of the older leaders: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Pinhas Sapir.

In 1963, Eshkol became PM and defense minister while Ben-Gurion led a terrible public campaign against him. Eshkol chose to keep Peres on as deputy minister.

In June 1964 Peres was a senior member, and I the youngest, in the entourage of Eshkol’s state visit to the United States. Peres worked alongside Eshkol. It was Eshkol’s personal charm and great negotiating skills with president Lyndon Johnson which laid the basis for the US-Israel alliance and the open supply of US arms supplies. But then, as Ben-Gurion attacked more fiercely, the split had to come.

Peres, from being crown prince of the entire defense establishment found himself without a management role. Peres helped found Rafi (the Israel Labor List) which spun off of Mapai, and placed the aging and weakened Ben-Gurion at its head. Rafi made a poor showing in the election at the end of 1965. From then until the Six Day War, a scurrilous and ugly campaign against Eshkol was waged utilizing everything from joke books to subsidized books. Peres had turned his brilliance and conspiratorial skills to undermining Levi Eshkol.

Only as a result of the mounting threat of the rearmed and revenge-seeking Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser did Rafi enter the government, with Dayan as minister of defense.

Peres later served as cabinet minister many times; his diplomatic experience and entree to the foyers of world powers made three roles most important for him: minister of defense, foreign affairs and – most coveted – prime minister. His personal charm, his self-confidence, his assurance were world class, and he continued to share visionary ideas with his interlocutors and the Israeli public.

(On self-confidence: We once shared a platform in Paris. Peres spoke French, mixing masculine and feminine indiscriminately.

He spoke cogently and well, as always.

Grammar – never mind!) The periods of revolving doors in which Peres changed ministerial position and plotted political ploys, he nonetheless brought Israel acclaim abroad, and quite often created dissension within, whether in his own party, the Labor Alignment or in the government.

One incident never published which illustrates his ability to combine vision with practicality: In 1987, he asked the heads of the Jewish Agency to open an additional campaign to develop the Negev. The American leadership turned him down flat. The key American, Max Fisher, sent a note, “Do not let Keren Hayesod accept!” I saw Peres privately and proposed founding the Genesis Foundation for the Development of the Negev. After seeing the lack of ministerial planning for the Negev, the foundation, which I chaired, produced feasibility studies ranging from applied mathematics in Beersheba to marinas in Eilat.

The great change in Shimon Peres came after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and as the diplomatic road and search for peace eventually led to a dead-end. Peres made the transition from politician to statesman.

He honed his bon mots, and embraced the role of grandfather of the nation and seer of the future Middle East and international development. Welcome everywhere, a man of many accomplishments for Israel across the decades, a man of many facets, a complex- role player whose love of language and need for prominence made him the best president Israel has had, a phenomenon of ongoing vitality.

Shimon Peres, consummate in all he did, awaits that biographer who will combine fine-combed truth with full justice to this complex man who evolved from wonder boy to national and international icon.

Avraham Avi-hai is a former civil servant in the offices of the state’s early prime ministers, and has been active in both academia and the executives of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

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