Savir's Corner: 30 years with Shimon Peres

On October 5, 1984, I began a 30-year journey with one of the country’s great founders and one of the most fascinating statesmen in the world.

Former president Shimon Peres. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Former president Shimon Peres.
It happened to me on October 5, 1984.
The newly elected prime minister, Shimon Peres, summoned me to his hotel room in New York (I was Israel’s press consul at the time) and told me with a commanding voice: “I am leaving in 48 hours back to Jerusalem, pack your things, you are coming with me as my spokesman.”
I began a 30-year journey with one of the country’s great founders and one of the most fascinating statesmen in the world.
Working with Shimon Peres, one has the constant sense of living at the side of a deep historical anchor, and an unpredictable entrepreneur. To him, Israel is deeply rooted in the annals of the Bible and a start-up nation at the same time. While this unique acquaintance continues into a fourth decade, it may be time to share some of the experiences with Israel’s foremost nation-builder.
So I joined Peres two days after he broke the news to me. I tend to say that this was the last time I ever had a good sleep. Working with Peres is a 24/7 adventure. The news stories about his energetic drive are a mere understatement. I recall several young bodyguards who fell ill from exhaustion running on the heels of Peres.
A 20-hour workday is routine for him. It begins at 5 a.m., with some regular morning exercise and lemon juice. When one morning I found him exercising in his prime ministerial living room, he told me that he once consulted Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais, a physician of his mentor David Ben-Gurion, about physical training. The good doctor advised him: “Did you ever see a bird exercise?” Indeed he is a constant dynamo for his country.
Initially, I was perplexed and asked him for advice on to how to keep up. He replied that he holds on to his energy by not wasting it on two sentiments common to many people: “I am never miserable, and I never feel pity for myself.”
Indeed this discipline Peres has acquired, together with his deep passion for Israel’s destiny, tremendous moral courage and a creative mind almost unparalleled, is what makes Peres the marathon man of the Jewish state.
He always aims high with a positive vision of the future, with a great belief in the ability of men and women. He runs the distance with relentless commitment, overcoming a great many obstacles and resistance to his plans. No setback can make him miserable or bitter, no offense can lead him to self-pity.
He has a special view of leadership, to which he is committed with great discipline.
To him, a leader serves his people, not the other way around. While not insensitive to popularity, a leader must see beyond the desire of the people, into their needs.
I saw him take responsibility in the most difficult of circumstances, without ever blaming others when something went wrong. That was true in my tenure, in the economic rescue of 1984-1985, the withdrawal from Lebanon the same years, the London Agreement with King Hussein, the gathering of exiles from Russia or Ethiopia, and not least of all, the difficult decisions made for peace with our neighbors, dealing with the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
I recall one evening in the summer of 1992, after Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister and Peres became foreign minister, I visited the Peres family at their home in Ramat Aviv. He had just returned from a long tête-à-tête with his political arch-rival of bitter days. He seemed moved and content, and told me: “I have just told Yitzhak, come on, we are both over 70, it’s time to bury the hatchet, work together, make the difficult decisions on peace necessary for the country, and spare the next generation the need to make such decisions.” They had then shaken hands on this commitment.
For Peres, peace is the ultimate achievement to strive for. At the side of Ben-Gurion, Peres was an architect of the country’s strategic defense capacity. He sees in Israel’s great strength not only a goal in itself, but a means to achieve a different relationship with the Arab world.
To him, peace with our neighbors is the key to sustainable strength and real security; it will allow Israel the real power it is capable of and let it further develop its knowledge and technology-based economy. It will permit major investments in the education of the young, which is the key to our future.
He knows all too well the limitations of power, and understands that our relationships in the Middle Eastern neighborhood will not be decided by war. He is deeply troubled by the plight of the Palestinian people, as he often said: “We should be in charge of our destiny, not the destiny of others.”
Above all for Peres, peace is a moral choice.
He prefers the price and risks of peace to the price and risks of war. He is a profound student of history, knowing that even the bloodiest of conflicts can be resolved peacefully.
What was true for France and Germany, for South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia, can be true for Israel and the Palestinians. To Peres it is a matter of setting historical change in motion by way of significant decisions, common interests and finding and expressing a common humanity.
Peace to Peres is built on three fundamental pillars – a compromise about past issues; a creation of new structures based on common interests for the future, especially of an economic nature; and mutual respect built out of equality. From these three points of view, a two-state solution is, in his mind, a must for Israel, and not a concession to the Palestinians.
I spent thousands of hours at Peres’s side in negotiations with the Palestinians. He is a tough but fair negotiator, who does not take no for an answer. He also treated his counterparts, such as PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Jordan’s King Hussein and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, with respect, never in a condescending way.
Through these attributes, he gained many assets in favor of Israel’s interests, as well as the good will of the other side to work together with him. I believe that had he been reelected in 1996 (when Netanyahu came to power), we would have achieved a permanent peace with the Palestinians and we would be on the way towards regional cooperation.
I once asked him if after thousands of hours of negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, he understood Palestinians better.
He replied: “No, I understand human beings better.”
Peres did not arrive at the Promised Land.
The arrival of Netanyahu to power meant the end of the peace process – an anti-Oslo advocate who could not implement the continuation of the historic agreement.
The day after the 1996 election surprise, I met Peres in his office, resilient as ever to continue his peace journey. He asked me to prepare a proposal for the creation of a peace center in his name. I developed a tailor- made Peres concept of a peace between people, and not just governments.
Peres holds a very democratic view of peace, one that must be legitimized by the people, a participatory peace in which Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs cooperate on their day-to-day interests and lives.
He sees in Israel a country that can contribute to the Middle Eastern region, with its technological ingenuity.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a great shock to him. The two men were very different, Peres an intellectual with great vision, Rabin the general and a master of detail. Present at many of their meetings, I saw them gain respect for each other. Both felt a deep responsibility for the country.
During all of these years, I saw Peres put the country above everything else.
The night of the assassination, November 4, 1995, I followed Peres to the emergency cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry.
Thereafter, I accompanied him in his car back to Jerusalem. All the way he was uncharacteristically silent, pensive and sad.
Suddenly, halfway to Jerusalem he turned to me, and said quietly, “I am now alone.”
His biggest political foe had become a partner.
Yet Peres, who has countless friends worldwide, always knew how to take decisions and act in solitude.
Peres is internationally recognized as Israel’s leading statesman. I accompanied him to virtually all corners of the world.
In all these visits, Peres symbolized to his hosts the Israel they admire. He possesses a unique ability to create a common language with different leaders and cultures.
While the leaders of the world inquired about Israel, he expressed great curiosity about their societies. In his talks with world leaders, Peres never preaches and unlike many other Israeli leaders, he actually listens.
This is especially true for the important meetings in Washington. He became a friend of all American presidents since JFK. He stood firmly for Israel’s interests, but always insisted on humbly expressing gratitude for the American alliance.
Peres is also the ultimate Francophile.
He is at home in Paris, after “conquering” it in the 1950s in favor of our strategic defense capacity. I recall many intellectual exchanges with François Mitterrand, his close friend, at the Champs Elysée. One day we were 20 people around the elegant dining table, when Mitterand, a scholar of the Bible, asked all participants if they knew the biblical origin of the word “shekel”; of course only Peres knew and quoted Genesis; which led him to convince Mitterand to engage in scientific-economic cooperation with Israel.
Science and technology excite and intrigue Peres. A man married to progress, his mind constantly inquires how best to apply scientific and technological advances to social change. He is a great believer in the ability of the Internet, nanotechnology, and the study of the brain to introduce human progress, especially in Israel.
Peres’s love story is with the future. Once after one of the Oslo process setbacks he said to me, “You know, our views are today in minority, yet we have one major ally: the future.”
Uri Savir is co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace and founder of the YaLa Young Leaders Peace Movement.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.