From Mister Security to Mister Diplomacy

While the biography is flawed, the life of Shimon Peres is still a fascinating read.

peres book 88 298 (photo credit: )
peres book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Shimon Peres: The Biography Michael Bar-Zohar Random House 554 pages; $30 It is a rare biographer who succeeds in charting a course between overfamiliarity and relentless criticism and still manages to produce a gripping narrative. Most begin by promising us "warts and all" portraits; few ever fulfill that promise. Sadly, Michael Bar-Zohar with his new biography on Shimon Peres is no exception. His friendship with the subject clouds not only his judgment but to a large degree also forms his view of other central figures in Israel's political history. Despite these faults, this is still an extremely important and timely book, not least for the lack of serious political biographies in Israel. Perhaps the most pertinent question is why Peres, at 84, had not yet been the subject of a comprehensive biography. In a more literary political climate, a man such as Peres, twice prime minister, who long before he reached the pinnacle of power, had already had more influence on Israel's future than many others who have held that office, should long ago have been the subject of half a dozen books. In this he is no different from most other senior leaders - including quite a few prime ministers - who have yet to have their life's story appear in book form. In most cases, those who have had their biographies written deserve a lot more than the lightweight hagiographies masquerading as serious works. The main reason for this dearth of biography is the simple fact that in a small country even a best-seller cannot hope to recoup the income lost during long years of research. Bar-Zohar's book not only plugs a yawning gap on the political bookshelf, it also affords us, through the unique perspective of a six-and-a-half-decades-long career, an understanding of the fault-lines of Israeli political ideology throughout the country's history in which Peres played a pivotal role from the beginning. The political debate in Israel's 59 years can be roughly divided into two almost equal periods. For the first three decades, the real argument raged within the Labor movement and among the left-of-center parties that invariably made up the ruling coalitions until 1977. While one camp vigorously advocated an internationalist, spartan-socialist and at first Soviet-oriented vision, the central wing believed in aligning the young state firmly with the Western powers and, with their help, building an infrastructure gradually ensuring economic independence, military supremacy and a higher standard of living. This view was held foremost by David Ben-Gurion. Peres, his disciple, was one of the most skillful operators busy realizing that vision through defense ties with France, Germany and other countries and the building of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Peres's grand vision of muscular Zionism, of Israel becoming an equal partner to the world's powers put him firmly on the right of the political mainstream. The "right-wing" and "liberal" parties that would eventually make up the Likud were largely irrelevant to the political debate until the 1970s. Even the beginnings of the religious settlement movement in the areas acquired during the Six Day War fit in with his ideology in those days. Indeed Peres, as defense minister between 1974 and 1977, was seen as the settlers' main patron within the Labor government. The frame of reference rapidly changed following the Likud's rise to power and the fitful progress of the various forms of peace process. Now the main tug-of-war would be between the right wing, with its opposition to any form of territorial compromise as a basis for agreements with the Arab nations, and the center-left's growing openness to entering negotiations in which everything would be on the table. By now Peres had repositioned himself on the left of the debate, though as Bar-Zohar points out, he seldom allowed himself to stray from the "security" consensus and, even at the height of the Oslo euphoria, wasn't very keen on the two-state solution so beloved by the more ideological left wing. Peres, for a quarter of a century the right-wing's most constant hate-figure, a symbol of all the Left's alleged duplicity, spinelessness, weakness in front of the goyim and lack of Zionist ideals, had been no less a target of barbed attacks in the preceding decades. Only then he had come under fire from the Left for being a megalomaniacal militarist. BAR-ZOHAR'S main thrust is to argue that it isn't Peres who has changed over the decades. The man who had defied internal opposition and international pressure to build Israel's fabled nuclear capability and equipped the IDF with the necessary weaponry to win decisive victories in 1956 and 1967 also, as foreign minister, went behind the backs of two prime ministers to reach the London Agreement with Jordan and the Oslo Accords with the PLO. It is in explaining this extraordinary transition from "Mister Security," Peres as architect of Israel's defense structure, to "Mister Diplomacy," Peres the statesman who relentlessly pursued every possible avenue, even hopeless dead ends, in his desperate crusade for a lasting peace, that Bar-Zohar is disappointingly weak. The interpretation of Peres's motives at critical junctures of his personal life and career is mainly superficial, keeping Peres in a positive light. Readers, especially those who are already familiar with the Peres story, are left with a list of unsatisfactorily answered questions. It's not only the transformation from Dr. Strangelove into the man of peace that is left shrouded in mystery. Bar-Zohar also fails to offer convincing explanations as to why Peres left his cherished kibbutz at such an early age and why his wife Sonia failed to play a visible part in his public life. We are still in the dark as to how far Peres was prepared to go in provoking the ire of world powers while building Dimona, whether he had any real qualms about dealing with Germany so soon after the Holocaust, what were his plans for the future of the West Bank in the period he supported the settlers, what was his vision of the permanent solution with the Palestinians when he was engineering the Oslo process and what made him leave Labor after 60 years and join Kadima. Bar-Zohar has brought us no closer to understanding why a man with so many obvious achievements constantly incurred the enmity of so many of his political colleagues, why he chronically lost elections and what keeps him driving ahead despite everything. To all these queries, Bar-Zohar supplies merely hints and half-answers that are little more than the case for the defense. He mentions the numerous criticisms of Peres over the years, but usually with derision, and even when he seems willing to accept a few of them, they are always proof of Peres's romantic and quixotic nature. Interestingly, Bar-Zohar reserves his own real criticism only for his friend's two "political mistakes." The first was in 1986 when he handed the premiership over to Likud's Yitzhak Shamir in accordance with the "rotation" agreement. Bar-Zohar berates Peres for not taking advantage of his public popularity at the time and breaking up the national-unity government and pushing for early elections. He is similarly critical of Peres's decision not to call elections in 1995 immediately after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination when he would almost certainly have beaten Binyamin Netanyahu. The fact that Bar-Zohar blames Peres for preferring to act the gentleman rather than being a political opportunist tells us more about the author than his subject. Bar-Zohar at the time was an active Labor politician, serving twice in the Knesset, and a permanent fixture in the Peres camp, running his primary campaign in 1977. It's almost as if he feels that by failing to grasp his opportunities, Peres also cheated him out of his share of power. Despite their enduring friendship, Bar-Zohar still seems incapable of forgiving Peres for these "mistakes," the first of which seems to be one of the main reasons he switched his allegiance to Rabin in the 1992 primary. BAR-ZOHAR'S own participation in some of the political episodes described in the book has colored the description of many of the other characters. While this personal acquaintance was obviously an advantage in many cases, in some it has unfairly influenced the historian's account. His description of former prime minister and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as "a bad speaker... his vocabulary was limited; the words came out of his mouth hacked and with difficulty, as though he regretted them" belies the constant frustration Shamir caused Bar-Zohar and his Labor colleagues. But if the book is influenced by Bar-Zohar's political past, it is formed to an even greater degree by his other, arguably more successful career, that of writer and historian. He first met Peres in the early 1960s while working on his doctoral dissertation on the military ties between Israel and France. The resulting book suitably impressed Ben-Gurion to agree to appoint the young academic as his official biographer. Not surprisingly, Bar-Zohar's intimate knowledge of these topics makes the extensive chapters on Peres's deep involvement with the French connection and his slavish devotion to Ben-Gurion the best parts of the biography. The new details he reveals about the early days of the nuclear program and the confirmation of other details, formerly the stuff of rumor, could easily have been material for a fascinating book in its own right. As it is, this part of Peres's life, spanning barely a decade and a half, takes up nearly half the book, leaving scant room for more than a cursory treatment of other important periods. The last 11 years, between Rabin's assassination and the present, are glossed over in a dozen pages. The Hebrew edition was published almost a year ago, but since there is no credit for a translator and the English version was so obviously written by a non-native English speaker, I can only conclude that Bar-Zohar himself translated or rewrote the book into English. An experienced translator would have made the biography a much smoother and more enjoyable read. But it still is a good read, even a great one, simply because Shimon Peres is a great story. All these drawbacks are doubly frustrating because if this biography succeeds in doing anything, it reminds us what a great and complex man Peres is, how his achievements and failings are indisputable by friends and rivals alike and to what an incredible extent his life and labors are woven into the historical fabric of Israel. Whatever our opinions of him, Peres is a great man and he deserves a great biographer, one who is not afraid to ask tough questions and shed light on less flattering aspects of his personality and career. Until that biographer comes along, Bar-Zohar's offering will have to suffice.