Perhaps the last living founding father of Israel, Shimon Peres led its quest to defend itself, as well as its quest for peace.
The stroke suffered Tuesday by former Israeli president Shimon Peres offers an opportunity to look at his legacy to the State of Israel. Tuesday, was September 13, 23 years to the day that he stood on the White House lawn with Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, overseen by President Bill Clinton, to sign the Oslo Accords, the peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Anyone who is familiar Peres, Israel’s ninth president (who retired from that post in 2014) and two-time prime minister, since then would think of him chiefly as the architect of peace with the Palestinians. Peres took his vision of peace and became an international celebrity in the process, even as the peace he pushed for never quite materialized.
But to remember Peres simply for his never quite realized dream of peace with the Palestinians, is to overlook the essential role he played in shaping Israel’s military in the 1950’s.
Ben Gurion’s Protege
In 1948, David Ben Gurion chose the then-24 year old Shimon Peres, who had come to Israel in 1934 with his family from what was then Poland, to head Israel’s navy. In 1952 he was appointed deputy director-general of Israel’s defense ministry. He served as director-general from 1953-1959.
During this time Peres not only built up Israel’s capacity for producing its own arms, but also developed military relationships with other nations, especially France. The ties with France were essential to the development of Israel’s nuclear program.
At this point, Peres appeared on a path to the premiership. He was young, ambitious, very good at what he did and was a trusted protege of Ben Gurion. But that path was detoured by the Lavon affair.
In 1954, Israel’s military intelligence recruited a ring of Egyptian Jews to sabotage British and American facilities in the Egypt. The goal was to implicate Egypt and encourage Britain not to withdraw and allow Egypt to nationalize the Suez Canal. The plot was discovered and members of the ring were mostly arrested. Two were hanged, two were acquitted and the others sentenced to jail in Egypt.
Ben Gurion had briefly retired and had been succeeded as Prime Minister by Moshe Sharrett. While many suspected Ben Gurion and those loyal to him, including Moshe Dayan, to have been behind the plot, blame fell on defense minister Pinchas Lavon.
In one of the investigations of the affair, it was found that Peres and Dayan had forged a letter implicating Lavon in ordering the operation. The fallout led to Ben Gurion and Peres leaving Mapai, the party he had founded, and one of the forerunners of today’s Labor Party along with Peres and Dayan.
Peres and Dayan returned to Labor in 1967 but his path to power had been temporarily derailed.
The On and Off Prime Minister
Still Peres remained an influential politician and became head of the Labor Party in 1977. But he lost the premiership to Menachem Begin in both 1977 and 1981. In 1984 he became prime minister as part of a power sharing arrangement with Yitzchak Shamir of Likud in a national unity government. The first 50 months of the government, Peres was the prime minister. During that time he withdrew most Israeli troops from Lebanon. During Shamir’s term coalition tensions led to the dissolution of the unity government and Shamir formed a Likud-dominated government in 1990.
Peres lost leadership of the Labor to Yitzchak Rabin, who defeated Shamir in 1992. Serving Rabin’s foreign minister, and assisted by Yossi Beilin, Peres tried to make peace with the Palestinians. The efforts resulted in ending Israel’s designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization and the signing of the Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993 by Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Rather than ushering in a new era of peace, the Oslo Accords, which allowed the PLO to set up a government in the West Bank and Gaza led to a wave of terror beginning in April, 1994 including car bombs and suicide bombings. Nonetheless in November, 1994, Peres, along with Rabin and Arafat jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the ongoing terror, which Arafat either turned a blind eye to or was complicit in, negotiations continued leading to an interim agreement that was signed in September, 1995. This almost led to the fall of the Rabin government but he was able to convince a faction of what had been a right-wing party to join the government.
However in November, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an extremist who opposed the peace agreement. Peres became prime minister. Eager to keep the peace process going, over the next seven weeks Peres, benefiting from public support in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, oversaw the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the major Palestinian population centers, which was completed by the end of the year and gave the Palestinian Authority control over some 90% of the Palestinian population.
However the terror didn’t end and during a two-week period over February and March 1996, a series of terror attacks in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv killed dozens of Israelis and soured Israel on the peace process.
At the end of May 1996, Peres lost his election bid to Benjamin Netanyahu. The peace process continued under Netanyahu and his successor, Ehud Barak. A few months after Barak, with encouragement from President Bill Clinton, made a peace offer that was rejected by Arafat, the Palestinians began what they called the “Aqsa intifada,” a terror campaign against Israel.
The second intifada brought Ariel Sharon to power. It was under Sharon that Israeli militarily defeated the terror campaign. But afterwards, Sharon sought to disengage from Gaza and, because of resistance within the Likud party, started a new party, Kadima. Shortly after losing the Labor Party leadership in late 2005, joined Kadima, ahead of the 2006 elections.
The Third Act
In 2007, Peres was Sharon’s choice to succeed Moshe Katzav as president of Israel. While the post is largely ceremonial, Israel’s president sometimes serves as a kind of ambassador to the world. It was a perfect fit for Peres, who, through his efforts at making peace, was on excellent terms with many current and former world leaders and celebrities. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Peres the Presidential Medal of Honor, America’s highest civilian honor. His 90th birthday party a year later was attended by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barbara Streisand.
Even as Peres gained celebrity for his unsuccessful peacemaking, he spoke out in Israel’s defense. In 2014 at the outset of Operation Protective Edge, Peres explained why Israel was justified in striking at Hamas.
When he presented Peres with the Presidential Medal of Honor, Obama described him as “the essence of Israel itself – an indomitable spirit that will not be denied,” Obama was correct. If you read about how Peres built Israel’s army and defense industry, it shows a man who was willing to suspend disbelief and believe that he could do anything that was necessary to achieve the results he desired.
It was that same spirit that pushed him to make peace with the Palestinians. Unfortunately in his zeal, he overlooked the critical factor in making peace, which was whether or not his adversary wanted it.
Ironically, “The New Middle East” Peres envisioned taking shape in the wake of Oslo Accords, is possibly slowly taking place now. The motivation for Arab states to (secretly) seek closer ties with Israel is not Israel making peace with the Palestinians, but the shared threat the Arabs feel from Iran.
[Photo: Government Press Office / WikiCommons ]