Sep 29, 2016 by


Prime Minister Netanyahu observed a moment of silence at the start of a special cabinet meeting to mourn the death of Shimon Peres. Credit Pool photo by Ronen Zvulun

With the death of Shimon Peres and the passing of the last of the giants of Israel’s foundation a void fills the soul — in part because the peace of which he dreamed has proved elusive, in part because the search for Israeli-Palestinian compromise has reached a low point of repetitive sterility, but above all because statesmanship has now given way among the leaders of Israel to barren tactical maneuver.

Think what you will of Peres — and he was an early supporter during the 1970s of settlements in the West Bank as well as a politician who never won a clear mandate from Israelis to be their leader — he was a man of restless creativity. He thought big about Middle Eastern peace. He dreamed big of prosperity allied to security for Israelis and Palestinians. He lived big, unrequited to the end.

His convictions evolved. In response to the wave of messianic religious Zionism with its claim to the entire biblical Land of Israel, he arrived at the utter certainty that, on the contrary, land had to be given up for peace. Holding the West Bank ad infinitum was untenable. The Oslo Accord of 1993, which he helped negotiate, was testament to his boldness. As he declared at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv almost two years ago: “Israel will be giving up its future if it sees the status quo as its desire.”

In all this he stands in stark contrast to his nemesis of 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced the second Oslo Accord as “the surrender agreement” and made an art of kicking the can down the road. Netanyahu’s thinking — such as it has existed beyond the adroit practice of public relations — never really evolved beyond its starting point: that all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to Israel and that Arabs want to drive Israelis into said sea. Yes, there has been lip service under American pressure to a two-state peace, but from Netanyahu it was never more than that.

Menachem Begin evolved; he made peace with Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin, who once said a Palestinian state would be “the beginning of the end of the State of Israel,” evolved to become the peacemaker of Oslo. Ariel Sharon evolved; he led the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Peres, who as defense minister in the 1970s urged “settlement everywhere,” evolved to deplore the expansion of those settlements.

These were statesmen, not salesmen; Israelis steeped in their land who looked beyond the next news cycle. They were ready to accept limited risk to get Israel out of the business of running the lives of others, Palestinians or Egyptians. They were conscious of the particular responsibilities — military but also ethical — of leaders of the Jewish state.

In contrast, Netanyahu has merely endured. He has been static in thought, going nowhere.

If the passing of Peres contains a message to Netanyahu and to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, it must surely be: Imagine!

I am not holding my breath. Israel is bereft because it has lost a father.

“The unique position of Peres on the world stage derived from the expectation that the leader of Israel will have a vision,” Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told me. “He thought about history where Netanyahu thinks about the next election.”

The pivot of Peres’s long life came between November 1995, when Rabin was assassinated and he became prime minister, and the election of May 29, 1996, which he lost to Netanyahu after holding a seemingly unassailable lead. If he’d won that election, the Oslo process might have flowered, and he would have died not a dreamer of peace but the man who delivered it.

Instead, in those six months, Peres swung this way and that, revealing his hesitations. As the historian Avi Shlaim has written, the Palestinians “regarded Rabin as much more reliable than Peres because with Rabin yes meant yes and no meant no, whereas with Peres both yes and no meant maybe.”

The killing in Gaza of a leading Hamas operative in January 1996 led to a wave of horrific Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis over the next two months. These weakened Peres; they undermined Oslo. So, too, did his decision to start a massive but inconclusive bombing campaign in Lebanon. In short, in Shlaim’s words, his “attempt to change his image from Mr. Peace to Mr. Security only damaged his credibility.” Netanyahu edged Peres by 50.4 percent to 49.5 percent.

By that narrow margin was the dream of Peres and Rabin defeated. An arid political season has ensued. And so in Peres’s death the loss feels acute.

I began by saying that a void fills the soul. It does, for those like myself who love Israel. But because of the politics of the past two decades, fewer people love Israel today, more people are reflexively hostile. In Peres, a noble idea of the Jewish State clung on against the dismal tide.

And now?

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