THE transformation of Szymon Perski from Vishnyeva in Belarus into Shimon Peres, a founding father of the state of Israel, is a reflection of how the Jews have moved from the margins of history to its mainstream after two millennia of dispersion and persecution.
An urbane cultured man who spoke several languages and wrote poetry, Shimon Peres managed to survive in the bear-pit of Israeli politics for over 60 years. He commenced his career as deputy director-general of the Ministry of Defence and persuaded France to quietly supply arms to Israel despite a British embargo in the lead-up to the Suez war in 1956. He was present at David Ben-Gurion’s side at Sèvres when the collusion pact was agreed between Britain, France and Israel prior to the Suez campaign.
Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day war in 1967, the Israel Labour party was established and Peres became one of the leaders of its hawkish wing. Together with Moshe Dayan, he endorsed the integration of the conquered West Bank into Israel’s economy. Unlike political doves such as Abba Eban, Peres was reticent about territorial concessions.
The Yom Kippur war in October 1973 commenced with a surprise attack by the Egyptians across the Suez Canal and resulted in 2,500 Israeli dead, almost 8,000 injured and a virtual stalemate whereby neither side could claim a real victory. An official commission investigated the lack of preparedness and this led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir. In 1974 Peres was narrowly defeated for the Labour party leadership by the military hero of the Six Day war, Yitzhak Rabin, and this sparked off an often bitter rivalry.
Peres became Defence Minister in the first Rabin government (1974-1977) and continued to present a hawkish approach in cabinet, peppered by a gentle criticism of Jewish settlement on the West Bank. His visit to the settlement of Sebastia in December 1975 was seen as a statement of being amenable to the settlers’ demands.
By the 1970s, it was clear that the Labour party had been in power for too long and had become the subject of scandal and corruption. Rabin resigned when the Israeli press discovered that his wife was in possession of a dollar account in Washington – which was illegal at that time. Peres took over as a caretaker prime minister, the party split and was comprehensively defeated by Menahem Begin’s right wing Likud in the 1977 election a few months later.
As leader of the opposition, Peres welcomed the Camp David agreement in 1979 and peace with Egypt. Yet once again he was unexpectedly defeated by Begin in the 1981 election. Begin’s second tenure ended in the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During this period Peres moved from the Right to the Left and aligned himself with Israeli doves. Along with 400,000 Israelis, he demonstrated in Tel Aviv about the killing of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon.
A dead heat in the 1984 election led to the ‘rotation government’ of a Labour-Likud coalition. Peres was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 with Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir then taking over.
Peres withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon and attempted to repair a badly damaged economy. He instigated Israel’s transition from a command economy based on socialist principles to a globalised capitalism.
As Foreign Minister, Peres forged the London agreement in 1987 with Jordan’s King Hussein but this was later vetoed by a highly critical Shamir.
Peres was ‘the almost man’ of Israeli politics. Someone who was remarkably talented, but never quite succeeded in his goals. He was expected to become prime minister once more in 1990, but the ultra-orthodox religious parties suddenly withdrew their support. He was replaced by his nemesis, the more electable Rabin.
Yet it was Rabin and Peres who together signed the Declaration of Principles – the Oslo Accord – with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. The peace process earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Following Rabin’s murder by a religious zealot in November 1995, Peres once more became Prime Minister and was once more defeated – this time by Benjamin Netanyahu. During the al-Aqsa Intifada, characterised by Islamist suicide bombers, Israelis turned to the hardline Ariel Sharon who brought back Peres as Foreign Minister in 2001. Peres wanted to utilise his good relationship with Arafat, but Sharon blocked him. Peres lost the Labour leadership in 2005, but became president two years later. He then served seven years in this post until 2014.
Peres regarded himself as a disciple of Israel’s founder, Ben-Gurion – someone who remained flexible politically and was not boxed in by rigid considerations of ideology. He reacted to what he considered the reality of the Israel-Palestine imbroglio. In his latter years he was considered an eloquent advocate for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, based on a two state solution.
Israel has lost a rational voice amidst the maelstrom of death and destruction in the Middle East.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book The Rise of the Israeli Right was published by Cambridge University Press last year.