The death (at age 93) of former Israeli President Shimon Peres marks the end of an era. Peres — the only person to serve, at different stages of his career, both as Prime Minister of Israel and as its President — is the last of Israel’s founding generation to pass away. He was a respected figure on the international stage, as the list of foreign dignitaries expected to attend his funeral attests. That list includes US President Barack Obama, Britain’s Prince Charles, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In recent years, and particularly during his seven year term in the mostly ceremonial office of President, Peres has been seen as an elder statesman. It’s easy to forget that, in 1965, he was one of Israel’s “young Turks” who followed David Ben Gurion out of the Labor Party in his quixotic challenge to the party he had once led. The resulting splinter party, known as Rafi (the Israel Workers List) was short-lived, and Peres, like his compatriots in that rebellion (among whom were Moshe Dayan, Yitzchak Navon and Teddy Kollek) was welcomed back into the Labor Party.
Peres’s achievements were plentiful and are largely underappreciated. In the State’s early days, he was responsible, as Director-General of the Defense Ministry, for the impressive growth of Israel’s arms industry. He also took the lead in the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Yet for many both in Israel and outside, Peres will be remembered chiefly — for good or for ill — as the architect of the Oslo Accords. For many if not most of the foreign dignitaries who will gather to mourn him, the failure of Israel’s subsequent governments to bring that peace process to a successful conclusion is much to be regretted.
Many Israelis and some of Israel’s strongest American supporters, don’t see it that way. To them, the Oslo accords, which earned Peres a share (along with Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat) of a Nobel Peace Prize, was an exercise in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They see Peres, at best, as well intentioned but naïve, so eager for peace that he chased its illusion, without ever realizing that Arafat was playing him.
I would count myself not as an opponent of Oslo but rather as a skeptic. I agree with the basic premise that Israel’s interests would be better served by a genuine peace with the Palestinians than by a permanent occupation of the West Bank. But I have never been convinced that the Palestinians have any commitment to peace, much less a willingness to compromise in order to achieve it. When Arafat responded to Ehud Barak’s offer by storming out of Camp David II in July of 2000 without even making a counteroffer, he confirmed what many Israelis and their supporters had long believed — that Arafat would never make peace with Israel. Nothing that Arafat or his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, did in the years subsequent to the failure of Camp David II has suggested any reason to reconsider that skepticism.
Peres remained optimistic about the prospect for peace, but he also remained a loyal and patriotic Israeli. During the years he served as Israel’s President, an office of great prestige but little power, he undoubtedly disagreed with many of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. Yet he willingly placed his international reputation at the service of his country, most memorably at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2011 when he stood up to Recep Erdogan, then Turkey’s Prime Minister (and now its President) in defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza
Whether Oslo was a naïve mistake, a noble but unsuccessful effort or (dare we hope?) a viable solution ahead of its time must be left to the judgment of history. Regardless of how that controversy is resolved, however, it cannot negate Shimon Peres’s many achievements or his decades of loyal service to his county.
Yehi zikhro barukh — may the memory of Shimon Peres be a blessing to the country that he helped to build. May the day soon come when the vision of peace that he refused to relinquish will be fulfilled, and may his family find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.