Israel’s 9th President and 8th Prime Minister lays on his death bed. How will we remember one of Israel’s great statesmen?
My experience of President Shimon Peres is a little different than for most American Jews. I volunteered for the State Control Committee for nine months from 2009 into 2010. I watched the President and his entourage pass by our offices near the Defense Committee chamber on several occasions. My colleagues and I would smile and wave as he walked by, but decorum dictated that we were there to work, not to be tourists or take photos with important figures.
There was a dignity in his posture, an aura of competence that he carried with him, and a sense of accomplishment. He was truly a man worthy of the offices he held. Seeing him made me proud to be a Jew, proud of the dignity of our people, and proud of Israel our Jewish state. Men like Peres helped to found that nation in a time when its establishment was far from a certainty. Although we take Israel’s existence for granted today, the men and women of Peres’ generation struggled, sweated, and bled for decades to make that perception a reality. That his health is declining is certainly a blow to the young state, but it is also precisely what he fought to attain: Shimon Peres will be mourned by a generation of Israelis and Jews internationally having helped to create, secure, and pass on to posterity the “dream of two thousand years.” Though he was born in Poland in diaspora as many of us have been, his family moved to the British Mandate of Palestine when he was young. Thanks to the efforts of Peres and those in his generation, Israel is alive and thriving and the Jewish people are alive and thriving. Our resolve and our will to build upon the work of his generation are strong.
Israel still faces many challenges from the perpetually intense security situation to economic and social concerns of every conceivable variety. Yet, men and women like Shimon Peres left the state of Israel to our generation to work toward a still brighter future. We can move on from the questions of Israel’s existence and legitimacy to broader questions of how to improve upon the Jewish state and how to strengthen the bond among the Jewish people.
We stand today looking skyward at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face us as tall as mountains and wonder if we will every reach the top. Imagine how President Peres and his generation must have felt looking at the obstacles of their time. Finishing the work is our responsibility.
Lessons From a Life of Service
When I consider Peres’ life and legacy no event is more seminal or far reaching in its consequences than the circumstances that led to his, albeit brief, tenure as Prime Minister (PM). Peres inherited the Alignment Party (Labour) in 1977 following a scandal that brought down Yitzhak Rabin’s government. He led the party into opposition during Menachem Begin’s term as PM. Peres brought the party to a narrow win in the 1984 elections, but failed to form a government. Israel was in dire shape in those years suffering rampant inflation, a collapsing currency, a stagnant economy, and in the wake of the troubled war in Lebanon.
It would have been easy enough to go back to elections and ask for a stronger mandate, but Peres chose to work with then Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir through back channels like Ariel Sharon. The unity government that followed would see Peres as PM for two years followed by Shamir. It would see significant reform to Israel’s economy that would foreshadow the prosperity that has now taken hold. This was a courageous moment when solving Israel’s problems was more important to leaders like Peres than personal or partisan gain. Ultimately, he would renew his unity coalition with Shamir while ceding the Prime Minister’s office. Peres left his mark on the Israeli left, although he would be overshadowed by Rabin’s meteoric return to political life in 1992. The Oslo Accords that followed would earn Rabin and Peres each a Nobel Peace Prize.
The efforts towards peace have stalled, largely due to the malfeasance of the PLO (now PA) leadership. Peres remained committed, however, to keeping our hand outstretched in peace and remaining open to the prospect of ending this conflict. As his time draws to a close, the growing threats of Iran and Islamic State have finally drawn the Sunni Arab states to the realization that Israel is far from their greatest concern, and could be a powerful ally. Perhaps this will lead to the realization of the peaceful coexistence that Begin, Rabin, and Peres, worked so hard to achieve.
By 2007 the Israeli presidency had been the subject of two devastating scandals that had muddied the office. Israel needed a great statesman to restore honour and prestige to that office, which is meant to rise above political strife, representing the Israeli public as a whole both at home and abroad. Shimon Peres was easily the right person for the job. He left a powerful impression on the office and big shoes for his successors to fill.
The greatest lesson to be gleaned from the political life this great statesman and the men and women of his generation, is to do what we know to be right. We cannot allow partisanship, ideology, or interpersonal feuds to sabotage the effort toward a better future. They chose the harder path of the moral high ground and we must follow suit.
Goodbye, Mr. President, if this is indeed the end, you will be missed but not forgotten. Your legacy is safe. May you find the peace, as you rest with our fathers, that was denied you in life. Am Yisrael Chai (The Nation of Israel Lives).