A Bridge Too Far: Peres's grand vision for the Middle East

The limits of the Zionist revolution, which the younger Shimon Peres repeatedly stretched, humbled him in his quest for a New Middle East.

Peres sits in the cockpit of a mock-up Lavi jet fighter in 1985 (photo credit: GPO)
Peres sits in the cockpit of a mock-up Lavi jet fighter in 1985
(photo credit: GPO)
The star-studded mourners’ armada that surrounded his grave had just departed, leaving Shimon Peres among his new neighbors at the Mount Herzl Cemetery’s Leaders of the Nation plot.
It seemed, in the eyes of a visitor, like a curious déjà vu.
Flanked by Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, fellow prime ministers for whom over the decades he was a boss, subordinate, and nemesis, no one in this well-gardened plot of austere but handsome tombstones is a stranger to its latest tenant. In fact, with two exceptions, Peres knew the surrounding graves’ residents much better than he knew the phalanx of presidents, prime ministers, princes and dukes who had just been there to salute him in his death.
Several steps from the dignitaries’ emptied seats lay former presidents Chaim Herzog and Yitzhak Navon who, back in the 1960s, joined Peres in Rafi, the party he served as secretary-general, and which challenged thenprime minister Levi Eshkol and his successor Golda Meir ‒ another pair of former Peres rivals buried here. All not far from the grave of legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, a lifelong ally of Peres since 1949, when they were in New York clandestinely buying fighter planes for the young IDF.
Peres even got to work with this noble cemetery’s first Israeli occupant, Eliezer Kaplan, who died in 1952. As Israel’s first finance minister, Kaplan provided the funds that Peres and Kollek were spending in New York.
Only two of this solemn hilltop’s inhabitants never rubbed shoulders with Peres.
One is Ze’ev Jabotinsky who died in the US but wished to be buried in Jerusalem, unlike his archrival David Ben-Gurion, who is interred on his beloved Kibbutz Sde Boker.
Peres never met Jabotinsky because that prophet of right-wing Zionism had long been expelled from British Palestine when 12-yearold Shimon Persky arrived there in 1935 after journeying by train and boat from his native Wiszniew, Poland, now Vishnyeva in today’s Belarus.
The other neighbor Peres never personally knew, the one whose black granite tomb overlooks the rest, he could not have met because he died 19 years before Peres was born. Then again, of the 14 Israeli leaders buried over the decades alongside Theodore Herzl, Peres is the first to be the Zionist seer’s visionary match.
Not only did Peres play first violin in realizing Herzl’s dream, Peres repeatedly stretched the latter’s vision to its limits before taking it to realms beyond Zionism’s means and aims.
The revolution sparked by Herzl was about the Jewish nation’s defiance of its fate. “A people can be helped only by itself,” the Viennese journalist told the First Zionist Congress.
“If it cannot do that – it cannot be helped.”
For a nation that had been conditioned since antiquity to accept as God’s will the loss of its ancestral land, political independence and national dignity, Herzl’s attitude constituted a mental U-turn.
Since antiquity, Jewish prayers have said “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land.” As Herzl saw things – and the Zionist enterprise acted in accord – the Jews were powerless not because of religious sins but because of political derelictions.
The Zionist movement, therefore, set out to do what Jews along the centuries insisted only God would do: shape history. This resolve to take no calamity as predestined and no obstacle as impassable is what Zionism gradually came to stand for, during nearly 70 years in which Peres played a role in the Jewish state’s every feat and travail.
From his unique vantage point within Ben-Gurion’s inner circle since he was 24, Peres saw how history’s challenges are stormed, subdued, and defeated.
While assigned with obtaining a decimated nation’s first battleships, Peres twice saw how Ben-Gurion defied a front of hesitators and pessimists ‒ first, in autumn 1947, when he endorsed the UN’s partition scheme, and second, the following spring, when he decided to declare Israel’s establishment despite its impending invasion by multiple Arab armies.
Peres soon followed his mentor’s example and began defying history himself.
Having seen Ben-Gurion strike an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia, and thus break an international arms embargo without which the 1948 war would not have been won, Peres did the same thing the following decade with France. The supplies he masterminded, most crucially AMX-13 tanks and an assortment of fighter jets, modernized the IDF and allowed its victories in 1956 and 1967.
His recruitment of arms suppliers in a hostile international system ultimately crowned by the creation of the world’s most improbable nuclear program, was but an extension of the Zionist ethos he had breathed even before his arrival in Zion.
The school he attended as a child in Wiszniew was part of a vast network of schools throughout Central Europe that taught all subjects in Hebrew. It was a grand and visionary Zionist creation that demanded great resourcefulness, and shaped much of the generation that would later build the Jewish state.
That system, too, was about much more than notebooks and blackboards; it was an engine of revolution, a machine that equipped thousands of children with their ancient forebears’ tongue even before they set foot in the future Jewish state.
In Peres’s case, this particular Zionist revolution, and the can-do spirit it fomented, became particularly proverbial in 1974 when he became defense minister and found alongside him in cabinet sessions the Hebrew teacher of his Belorussian childhood, Yehoshua Rabinowitz, in his reincarnation as the Jewish state’s finance minister.
Peres’s experience of the Zionist revolution indeed evolved decades before his arrival at its helm.
Whenever recalling how in 1942 he and several other youngsters established Kibbutz Alumot, he would stress that everything they created – houses, crops, cowsheds – emerged from what they received as barren Galilean fields overlooking Lake Kinneret.
There were thousands of others like him throughout the burgeoning Jewish state in those days, and that is how they were conditioned to always see in creation both a supreme value and realistic option.
In Peres’s case, this mindset led from the creation of a community to the creation of an arms industry, out of nothing, in addition to the creation of deals that allowed Israel to buy other countries’ goods.
As director-general of the Defense Ministry at age 30, he created an arms industry whose output morphed from light arms to battle tanks and guided missiles, and an aerospace industry that proceeded from maintaining and upgrading light aircraft to making fighter jets and catapulting satellites into outer space, all of which eventually made Israel the world’s 10th largest arms exporter.
While working on his segment of the front, Peres was witness to the rest of the front’s successful assaults on the Jewish State’s fate.
IN 1948, this future would have sounded to contemporaries like science fiction but, by the time he became prime minister in 1984, the 600,000 Jews with whom Peres followed Ben-Gurion to the War of Independence had become 4 million.
The Zionist enterprise’s demographic expansion has been so rapid that in the sixth year of Peres’s presidency, Israel became, for the first time since antiquity, home to the world’s largest Jewish community, crossing in 2014, the final year of his presidency, the symbolic threshold of 6 million Jews. Few things display, and vindicate, the Zionist quest to defy history more clearly than this.
The same resolve to seize the Jewish fate has been evident in the Zionist enterprise’s stubborn assault on the desert; in its extraction of a victorious army from history’s most defeated nation; and in its creation of a celebrated agriculture with a nation of merchants, scholars and scribes.
During his rides to the Negev while secretly building Dimona’s nuclear reactor, Peres could see through the car window new villages and cities springing up in the middle of nowhere, while a system of pipelines, canals and reservoirs was being built to supply water from the abundant north to the arid south.
It was with all this baggage etched into his hard disk that Peres would lead the Jewish state’s seizure of its economic fate.
With inflation raging at 415 percent, the public sector spanning 76 percent of the economy, public debt equaling 221 percent of GDP and Israel but several months away from losing the last dollars with which to buy even one bullet abroad – the Zionist enterprise’s economy begged open-heart surgery. Peres would perform it, and while at it reinvent the patient.
After slashing military spending by 20 percent, he cut all food and transport subsidies, froze hiring and wages across the public sector, and nixed the unions’ indexation deals that automatically raised wages according to inflation.
Working together with a finance minister from Likud, Yitzhak Modai, Peres banned, by law, the financing of deficits by printing money, and placed monetary policy in the hands of the Bank of Israel’s economists, thus taking it away from the politically run Treasury.
The result was a Zionist revolution arguably on par with the creation of an army, the defeat of the desert, and the revival of Hebrew.
Triple-digit inflation plunged to less than 20 percent, and by the following decade was among the world’s lowest, which it remains to this day. The shekel, which Peres inherited as paper money, gradually became one the world’s strongest currencies; the budget deficit became one of the lowest in the world; the debt-to-GDP ratio became lower than its level in the US, Britain and France; the trade deficit became a surplus; unemployment, now 4.6 percent, is among the world’s lowest; and per capita GDP is but 10 percent away from Japan’s.
WHILE THESE bottom lines took years to arrive, they were sparked by Peres’s 1985 emergency plan. So were the subsequent privatizations Peres touched off, when he forced the unions’ umbrella organization, the Histadrut, to restructure its debt-ridden holding company, Koor, which meant firing 30 percent of what then was Israel’s largest employer.
Meanwhile, Peres canceled the Lavi fighter jet project. A multitude of engineers lost their jobs, but instead of moving abroad, as was widely expected, they mostly stayed – either finding new jobs in the reinvented economy or pioneering the start-ups that soon inspired the entrepreneurial frenzy that is now part of Israel’s identity and the main locomotive of its new wealth.
Thanks to Peres’s economic surgery, Israeli companies were soon offering stocks abroad, and their shares became the most common foreign securities traded on Wall Street after Canada’s. A mere decade earlier, such accomplishments were unthinkable. Peres had safely navigated the Zionist enterprise from socialist doldrums to capitalist peaks.
Peres’s conclusion from all this was that if Zionism could relocate millions, build multiple cities from scratch, restore a dormant language, build an army, paint the desert green and create a sterling economy, it also could reinvent the Jewish state’s neighborhood – the Middle East.
The resolve to reinvent the Middle East first emerged in spring 1987, half a year after Peres handed over the premiership to the Likud’s Shamir and became his foreign minister, as the two had agreed following their electoral tie in 1984. At that early point, however, Peres’s plan was not about reinventing the entire Middle East, but rather focused on creating Arab-Israeli peace by restoring most of the West Bank to Jordan, from which it had been conquered in 1967.
Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein met secretly in London with Shamir’s approval and reached an agreement to convene an international peace conference under American auspices in which Jordan would represent the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat and his operation would be excluded because the forum would renounce terrorism and endorse UN resolutions 242 and 338, which would entail recognition of Israel’s existence.
The idea was that the agreement with Hussein would be presented by the US as its own proposal. Moscow, by then under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, hinted it would comply.
Peres, however, provoked Shamir when he refused to give him a copy of the agreement after reading it to him. Shamir, an ever suspicious pessimist to begin with, thus set out to torpedo the deal, sending US Secretary of State George Schultz a message that an American endorsement of the deal would constitute interference in Israel’s internal affairs. “Surprisingly,” wrote Peres in his autobiography, “Schultz accepted this argument.”
OTHERS WERE not surprised, but Peres, who was used to seeing every Zionist effort to reshape history materialize, was. His surprise was even greater the following year, when his 80 percent popularity rating evaporated and Shamir handed him an electoral defeat.
The causes of that electoral setback will pose a major dilemma for Peres’s biographers.
Some will say Peres misguidedly provoked war with Shamir, hoping to lure Likud voters with a promise of peace.
Others will say the voter might have been more impressed if Hussein had publicly appeared with Peres. In any event, Peres and his peace quest were sidelined, while on the ground the violence of the first intifada erupted. History was now defying Shimon Peres.
Even so, Peres’s resolve to defy history only grew, and new circumstances – one setback and two opportunities – would make him attempt to colossally transform it.
The setback was Jordan’s formal abandonment, in 1988, of its claim to the West Bank. The pragmatic, reliable and humane Hussein’s willingness to disabuse Israel of its rule over the Palestinians had been lost in the smoke of an increasingly inflamed West Bank.
The opportunities offsetting this setback were the Soviet Union’s dissolution in winter 1991, and Rabin’s electoral defeat of Shamir the following spring. It was then that Peres embarked on his march to what he called “The New Middle East” – a brave effort to persuade Arab leaders to seize their fate the way the Jews had claimed theirs.
Inspired by the Cold War’s happy ending and the rise of a newly integrated world, Peres’s vision for the Middle East was as grand as Herzl’s was for the Jewish nation.
The original peace vision, of a Benelux type of superstructure linking Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians now proceeded to the entire Middle East, whose leaders would create a common market like Europe’s, a military alliance like NATO, and a regional development bank that would do in the Arab world what the World Bank does worldwide.
Meanwhile, a super-highway would be built stretching the width of North Africa, ultimately linking Casablanca and Alexandria; fast trains would swoosh up the Nile basin en route to Turkey through Tel Aviv, Latakia and Beirut; electricity grids would serve neighbors such as Egypt and Libya or Syria and Iraq in disregard of borders; and a borderless continuum lacing Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt would shoulder a Red Sea Riviera.
MAINSTREAM ISRAELIS who were captured by this vision sobered up the following decade when Ehud Barak’s offer, in the presence of Bill Clinton, of the ultimate land-for-peace deal was answered with 138 suicide bombings and scores of shooting, stabbing and ramming attacks stoked by Hamas’s Islamists and frequently applauded by the PLO’s secularists.
Peres, the visionary, now watched helplessly as his optimism was abandoned even by former enthusiasts of his vision ‒ from Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, a cofounder of Meretz and Rabin’s education minister, to Hebrew University’s Prof. Shlomo Avineri, doyen of Israel’s political scientists.
The failure of Peres’s vision ran deeper, and reached much further than the narrow Arab-Israeli context.
In Cairo, Peres’s peace manifesto “The New Middle East” was translated into Arabic and published in 1995 by state-owned al-Ahram, in what seemed like an encouraging development from his viewpoint. Yet, once people held the book in their hands it turned out the publisher presented Peres’s vision wrapped in a warning akin to that of the surgeon- general on a pack of cigarettes: “When The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were discovered some 200 years ago and translated into various languages, including Arabic, the World Zionist Organization attempted to deny the existence of the plot and claimed forgery. The Zionists even endeavored to purchase all the existing exemplars to prevent their circulation.
But, today, Shimon Peres proves unequivocally that The Protocols are authentic, and that they tell the truth. Shimon Peres’s book is but another step towards achieving the malicious scheme.”
Mapping the Arab rejection of Peres’s vision – from Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said to the head of Egypt’s artists and performers syndicate, Saad Eddin Wahbe – the late Lebanese- American Arabist Fouad Ajami later wrote grimly in “The Dream Palace of the Arabs”: “The Arab political imagination had never really probed in a serious way Israel’s place in a region at peace.”
It was part of a broader, flat rejection of Peres’s vision by the Arab intelligentsia. To them, it turned out, the economic revolution Peres sought was a threat, and the social mobility he hailed was anathema, for they would potentially disempower a failed elite’s grip of Arab society.
Asked against this backdrop whether he had consulted Israeli intelligence services before assuming Arab governments would join him for the ride he offered to a New Middle East, Peres answered that statesmanship is not about information, it is about intuition. Spy agencies, he said, didn’t foresee Pearl Harbor, Operation Barbarossa, the Yom Kippur War, the fall of communism or the September 11 attacks.
They, therefore, could not be the ones with whom to conduct the search for a New Middle East.
That was true, but Peres’s intuition has been tested empirically and proved premature at best, unfounded, at worst. In his quest to do for the Middle East what Herzl did for the Jews, Peres took it as a given that Arab leaders, like Western leaders, wanted their citizens prosperous, educated and empowered. They didn’t.
This is besides the fact that reinventing other nations was never meant to be part of the Zionist plan. That kind of thinking characterized Zionism’s opponents among German Jewry’s Reform movement in the days when they believed the Jews had been redeemed, when they were emancipated, and their mission was now to mend the rest of the world.
Fifteen years after that publisher penned in Cairo his absurd take on Peres’s vision, millions took to the streets of that city, Tunis and Damascus demanding the very hope, opportunity, and dignity they would have obtained had their leaders followed Peres’s lead to a New Middle East.
It now became obvious that most Arab leaders and the elites to which they were attached, including that publisher, resisted the New Middle East vision because they feared the economic meritocracy, social mobility and political freedom it would inevitably unleash.
That is how Peres ended up spending his last years watching helplessly an unreconstructed Arab world drown in an Old Middle East’s riots, coups and bloody civil wars.
The economic vibrancy Peres prescribed remained the Arab masses’ wish, while stagnation, underdevelopment, under-education and rampant unemployment remained their reality.
Embracing the future, as Peres repeatedly preached, made way for imposing the past.
Forgetting history, as he passionately recommended, made way for fundamentalist romanticism and tribal wrath.
The Zionist visionary’s gospel had been scorned, trampled and shed by a region that insisted on changing none of its ways. The history Peres spent a lifetime reprogramming refused to be rebooted once taken beyond the Jewish state.