In recent days numerous people have attempted to summarize the life of Shimon Peres. Some have argued that Peres was the definitive realist. In the 50’s he realized that Israel could not survive without obtaining a definitive military advantage over its Arab neighbours. Thus he founded Israel’s nuclear program. By the 70’s he realized that Israel’s economy was on the brink of collapse. Thus he reformed its currency. During the 90’s he realized that Israel could not survive as a democracy while conquering another people. Thus he perused peace with the Palestinians.
Others have described him as an intellectual, a poet, an optimist and even as a man of war. Yet I feel that Peres was a tragic figure. For throughout life Peres wanted nothing more than to be loved and throughout most of his life he was despised.
During the 1950’s and 60’s Peres was despised by Israeli leaders born in Mandatory Palestine, the so called Tzabars. For them, Peres was the antithesis of Israeliness, a symbol of weak Diasporic Jews who fled Poland rather than confront the Nazis. Peres was part of a Jewish world that walked like lambs to the slaughter in concentration camps across Europe. His Galiztain veneer and thick Polish accent stood in contrast to the raggedness and boldness of those born in Israel with a knife between their teeth.
During the 1970’s, Peres was despised by North African Jews. This outsider was now seen as part of the European establishment that had segregated North African Jews from Israeli society for two and a half decades. They railed against him and cursed at him until the outcast was outcast yet again.
In the 1980’s, Peres was despised by his own party having failed again to form a Labour government. By now he was seen not as a Galitizin Jew, but as a “relentless subverter”, a political mechanic always looking to wheel-and-deal. From then on, Peres was regarded as the “Constant Contender”, a man so immersed in political machineries that he would run for President of his condominium or Chairman of his barbershop had the post been available.
By 1996 Israelis could agree on very few things one of them being their shared hatred of Shimon Peres. He was despised by the left for having lost the election to the young Benjamin Netanyahu. Dubbed “The Loser” he was sent to political exile. Peres was also despised by the right wing for the Oslo accords. In protests across the country Peres was demonized for having established a quai-Palestinian state. My childhood is filled with images of cars baring the bumper sticker “Indict the Criminals of the Oslo Acord”. Dubbed the “traitor” he was sent to political purgatory.
Yet for all the hate, the nicknames, the bumper stickers, the jokes and the insults, Peres’ resolve never wavered. Not his resolve in Israel, or peace or the “New Middle East” which he branded like toothpaste. But in himself. In his ideas, in his decisions and in his belief that he was the right person to lead Israel.
“Me? A loser?” he yelled once at hundreds of Labour party members. When they all shouted “Yes”, he smiled and kept speaking. They would elect him. One day they would all come back.
And so they did. In 2007, after Israel’s President resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and rape, and following the political turmoil of the 2006 war in Lebanon, the nation looked to its elder to restore a sense of identity and dignity to Israel. Now his Polish accent was a source of pride. Peres was Israel’s link to its history, to the social and religious roots of the Jewish state. Yet even more importantly, he was Israel’s history. At every critical juncture, in every critical decision, Peres was present.
From the “Constant Contender” he morphed into the “Constant Gardener”. Right, left, religious, secular, European or North African- all loved him. Throughout his seven year Presidency Peres was the most admired and popular political figure in Israel. Adored by all, despised by none, was finally part of the consensus.
Yet to do so, to gain the love of the crowds, Peres did something he was never willing to do previously- he wavered in his resolve. He gave up the quest for peace. He abandoned the struggle over Israel’s character. He silenced his moral compass.
Peres turned from a peace-maker to a blazer, a jacket that would protect Israeli right wing governments against criticism. Whenever a world leader was ready to criticize Israeli settlements, Peres was dispatched to assuage him. Whenever a country was ready to boycott Israel, Peres was sent to negotiate a truce. Whenever a US President was about to call for a two state solution, Peres was rushed to the White House to receive a medal and re-iterate Israel’s commitment to peace. Peres became part of the straightjacket that paralyzes Israel.
The love of the common man in return for his soul-that was the bargain that Peres struck.
And so Peres emerges as a tragic figure. Not Sisyphus, forever destined to push a rock up a mountain, or Narcissus, destined to love himself to death. But rather as Oedipus, a man whose pride ultimately makes him blind to the truth.
Peres would have been touched by the funeral service held Friday in Jerusalem. Yet this week, his country will remain torn, violent and lost. I cannot help think that he could have bequeathed us a much worthier legacy.