Seven years a president, 70 years a public servant

A look back at the career of Shimon Peres as he moves on from the presidency.

Former president Shimon Peres. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Former president Shimon Peres.
Few people have been more involved with the birth and development of the State of Israel than Shimon Peres, who has just completed a seven- year tenure as president and a 70-year career as a public servant.
But the country’s elder statesman will continue to be a mainstay of the public consciousness, he may even be more successful in an unofficial capacity than he ever was in an official one.
The president did not anticipate ending his public career with Israel embroiled in a bloody war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It has been heart-breaking for him to see the photographs from Gaza, which he says are “terrible.” It has been equally heart-breaking for him to visit the families of fallen soldiers to express his own condolences and those of the nation.
At the same time, however, he insists that “there can be no compromise with terror.
“We have to say it clearly, no more rockets, no more tunnels, no more terror.
Israel will continue to defend itself – it is our moral responsibility and our sovereign right.”
It was Hamas that refused the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, not Israel, he points out. “It is in their hands to stop the bloodshed.”
Israel would much prefer peace says Peres, and from the very beginning of her existence as an independent sovereign state has held out her hand in peace, but unlike Egypt and Jordan, Hamas has been unwilling to accept it.
“We are not interested in war,” he insists. “The Palestinian people are not our enemies. The people of Gaza are not our enemies. Only terrorist organizations such as Hamas are our enemies.”
Meanwhile he says, Israel is doing all that it can to minimize civilian casualties.
AND SO, on a somber note, the longest-serving Knesset member, with a reputation as a political hawk and one who was heavily involved in the planning of some of the country’s most successful military operations, steps down.
First elected in 1959, Pere was a minister in 12 cabinets, served twice as prime minister, twice as foreign minister, twice as defense minister and once as finance minister. Along the way, he also served as immigrant absorption minister, transportation minister and postal services minister. His last ministerial portfolios were those of vice prime minister, minister for regional development, and minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee.
In foreign affairs, he was instrumental in the construction of the “Good Fence” between Israel and Lebanon in the 1970s, and some years later he ordered the IDF’s withdrawal from that country, with exception of a security strip in Southern Lebanon.
Changing realities in the Middle East opened a window of opportunity for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
Peres, in his capacity as foreign minister, received the Nobel Peace prize with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1994 for their signing of the Oslo Accords.
But peace did not come despite ongoing efforts for more than two decades, including help and encouragement from the international community.
Peres has frequently come under criticism from the Right for the negotiations that led to Israel’s recognition of the PLO and the signing of the Oslo Accords. Many are convinced that without the Oslo Accords, the killing and maiming of hundreds of Israelis in Palestinian terrorist attacks could have been avoided.
Nonetheless, Peres remains certain that peace is attainable in the not-toodistant future.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in April 2013, he contended that the Oslo Accords were not a mistake, because without them there would be only one Palestinian camp – a camp of terror – whereas today there is a Palestinian peace camp under the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Peres has not veered from this belief.
Responding last week to a question from the Post regarding what he believed the outcome would have been if Oslo had succeeded, he replied, “We would have two states for two peoples, living in peace side by side. We began the process, and I believe that we must continue it. There is no alternative to peace except more war, bloodshed and hatred.”
TODAY, PERES confesses to being “a worried optimist,” but says that he’s old enough to see the justification for being optimistic.
He remembers when mosquito-infested swamps dominated the country’s North and malaria was rife, while the South was barren desert. There was no water, and there were no natural resources. He expresses great satisfaction with the strides the state has made since, remarking that in the beginning the population was 650,000, and today it is more than eight million. There has also been extraordinary growth in infrastructure, technology, culture, leisure and military capability.
“Don’t you think I have reason to be optimistic?” he asks.
But optimism is no excuse to shirk responsibility.
Actively involved with the country’s defense establishment, Peres was a driving force behind Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, military and aerial industries, and the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Working with the late Al Schwimmer, with whom he shared a close friendship as far back as 1950, Peres offered the backing necessary for the creation and development of an aviation industry, which Israel certainly could not afford so early in its statehood. Schwimmer, an American pilot who had fought in the War of Independence and who, together with Jewish pilots and mechanics, had built fighter planes from World War II scrap, was keen to start an aviation industry in the nascent state, and Peres not only encouraged him, but gave him ideas. They remained friends until Schwimmer’s death in June 2011.
Although the Americans have been of enormous help in supplying Israel with defense equipment, this was not always the case. Until the Kennedy era, America refused to sell arms to Israel, and even president John F. Kennedy initially refused when Peres asked to purchase rifles.
The US always followed developments in Israel very closely, and at a meeting that Peres had with Kennedy at the White House in April 1963, the American president asked him about Israel’s nuclear program. Peres had not expected the question, but thinking quickly, he replied that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East – a statement that in some Israeli and international political circles was tantamount to an admission that Israel had a nuclear program.
Nonetheless, within two years, it became the official line of the Eshkol administration.
At the same time that he was courting the Americans, Peres was also courting the French. It was France that was the major supplier for the construction of the nuclear plant in Dimona and that for several years supervised its development.
The warm relations that Peres enjoys with France go back to the time he first accompanied Ben-Gurion to a meeting with French president Charles de Gaulle. There was instant chemistry between Ben-Gurion and de Gaulle, which was also beneficial to Peres: He has known every French president and prime minister since then, as well as most of the ministers of defense and foreign affairs.
More recently, Peres was promoting nanotechnology before most people in Israel had ever heard of it. Now he’s promoting brain research, and through his connections with big-time philanthropists, he has succeeded in getting considerable funding for scientists probing the secrets of the brain. He’s also advocating bio-agriculture so that more affordable medications for a large number of ailments will be available to more people.
PERES MADE many of his international connections through the Socialist International organization, of which he was a vice president.
But he also made enemies. As a politician, he suffered numerous indignities, including having tomatoes thrown at him when addressing the crowd in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park during the 1981 Mimouna festivities. But as he has said himself, the public treated him much better as president than it did when he was a politician.
His popularity with the public peaked during his presidential years. He has received many accolades from world leaders.
“I’m a fully paid-up member of the Peres fan club,” Tony Blair, former British prime minister and current Quartet Special Envoy to the Middle East, announced last week. “He is an outstanding leader, a magnificent servant of the State of Israel, a striver for peace, and though Israeli to the core, he is a global leader.”
In June, Peres received the US Congressional Gold Medal, but even before that, US President Barack Obama had conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him.
Numerous heads of states and governments are involved with the Jaffa based Peres Center for Peace, a testament to the esteem in which the president enjoys around the globe.
YET MANY question the neessity of continuing the office of the president, saying it is a drain on the public coffers and should be abolished.
Peres, as one might expect, disagrees.
“I’m for the continuation of the presidency,” he said when asked last week. “The government is the executive branch and, as is written in our laws, the president is the head of state and represents the people both to the world and domestically.”
In fact, the president does more than represent the people. Based on the recommendations of the various political parties, he decides who should form a government. In consultation with experts from the Justice Ministry, he decides on presidential pardons or commuting of sentences. He hosts receptions for national and religious holidays, visiting heads of state, memorial events and inauguration events. He meets regularly with the prime minister and the IDF chief of staff, as well as the heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Military Intelligence and a host of other institutions.
He more or less has an open house for delegations of Jewish organizations from the Diaspora. And when tragedy strikes, he visits bereaved families and communities, speaking to the nation to ease their concerns.
Peres has also traveled overseas more than any of his predecessors, although his previous positions brought him a wide circle of connections in many countries.
He has even had contacts with leaders of countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, and received many invitations that he did not have time to accept before the end of his term.
Regarding how Diaspora Jews relate to Israel, Peres has remarked that “the Jews live on two things; Torah and the land.
When we are not on the same land, we still share the same Torah. I believe we should come to an agreement on shared principles between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, which should be based on all that unites us; our commitment to education, our belief in tikkun olam [repairing the world] and our desire for peace.”
He has often said that in the early days of the state, Israel’s dreams were considered too big, but in hindsight he can see that they were too small. So what does he dream now? “My dream is that we will be a nation that lives according to the principles of the Ten Commandments, which are the moral foundation of the Jewish people,” he said last week. “I wish to see us as a scientific state and a contributor to the world, exporting our knowledge and experience for the benefit of the world.”
BEN-GURION WAS his mentor and remains his hero. There were other great Israelis who influenced him, though Peres does not mention them nearly as often as he refers to Ben-Gurion. When prodded, he said in last week’s interview: “There are many great Israelis who have helped make this country what it is today – from those who are no longer with us, [Labor Zionist leader] Berl Katznelson was my teacher, and I would also mention Moshe Dayan, [and writers] Nathan Alterman and S. Yizhar. But they are four out of a great many.”
Peres has an extraordinary memory, yet he claims to have little interest in history and only looks forward to the future because “history cannot be undone,” while “there is something we can do to create a better future.”
For Israel’s ninth president, Friday will be his first experience being out of office since the establishment of the state.
On August 2, he will celebrate his 91st birthday, but he does not see himself as old – just older. He already has many plans for things he wants to do, and given his record, most will likely get done – or at least get started so that others can follow through with them.
Asked which of the projects he has initiated gives him the greatest sense of pride, he characteristically replies: “I’m not interested in the past. My greatest achievement will be what I do tomorrow. I am totally focused on the future.”
The shepherd and the poet
ASA young boy who came from Wiszniew, Poland, to Tel Aviv in 1934, Peres has adapted to many changes in his life. He attended two schools in the city before going to the Ben-Shemen Agricultural School. There, he met his late wife Sonia, whom he married in 1945. Before that, he was the head of the Noar Ha’oved Vehalomed group that left Ben-Shemen to live temporarily in Kibbutz Geva in the Harod Valley and later moved on to found Kibbutz Alumot in the Lower Galilee.
When not engaged in the political meetings that were part and parcel of the kibbutz’s social life, the young Peres dreamed of being a shepherd and composing poetry. He was a dairy farmer by day, counting his herd, and a poet at night, counting the stars.
Peres recalls that in 1947 – a year before the state’s establishment – David Ben-Gurion invited him to join the Hagana Command. At the time, Peres was only 24 years old. When he came to Hagana headquarters, no one besides Ben-Gurion knew exactly why he was there, and there was no spare place for him to sit. Since the designated chief of staff for the future IDF was away, Peres was told to sit at the man’s desk until he returned, and afterward they would find another solution.
Curious, he opened the drawers of the desk to see what was inside and found two letters, each in a plain envelope.
He didn’t think he was prying, and he opened one of the envelopes.
The letter was actually addressed to Ben-Gurion, thanking him for having sufficient confidence in the writer to want to appoint him chief of staff, but the writer had decided to decline the honor after discovering that the statein- the-making had only enough ammunition and other military equipment to last for six days.
Of course, though hopelessly outnumbered on all sides, Israel won the War of Independence and subsequent wars.
Peres was one of the few people who continued to support Ben-Gurion at a time when most of the Labor Zionist movement, Mapai, was against him.
Small wonder, then, that a couple of years down the line, after Ben-Gurion surprisingly won the Mapai elections, he appointed Peres to the Mapai secretariat – a position that triggered Peres’s lifelong peregrinations around the world.
Together with Moshe Dayan, he was chosen as a youth representative in the Mapai delegation to the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1946.
The following year, he began working with Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol in the Hagana Command, and in 1949 he headed the Defense Ministry delegation to the United States in the hope of purchasing military equipment. In 1950 he became temporary head of the Israel Navy, and in 1952, at age 29, he was appointed deputy director-general of the Defense Ministry. By the time he was 30, he was already director-general.
It would be a few years before he became defense minister, but that was the beginning of a journey that has lasted all his life.