There is a sort of cosmic justice to the manner in which Shimon Peres’ political career has come to an end. Over the past few years, opinion polls have consistently shown that Peres is the most loved and revered public figure in Israel, far ahead Prime Minister Netanyahu and his vocal ministers. Finally, at the age of 91, Peres has become what he always hoped to be, the very thing that unites Israelis and the symbol of national consensus.
Though Peres always wanted to be loved by the Israeli people, for most of his career he was one of the most hated politicians in Israel. He was hated by the Israeli born Tzabars who fought in Israel’s Independence War and saw Peres a as Galitzian pencil pusher. In the seventies he was hated by the Sephardic Israelis who believed him to be a symbol of the very establishment that had held them back for so long. During the nineties Peres was hated by the Israeli right wing that labeled him a traitor and booted him out of office after only six months. Peres was even hated by his own Labor party which saw him as an eternal loser. The late Yitzhak Rabin famously dubbed Peres “a relentless conniver”.
Last week, during a meeting with a Congolese human rights activist, the beloved Peres praised Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas saying “President Abbas is a man of principle; he is against terror, against violence” adding “He is a good partner and I’m glad that our government is negotiating with him. Disagreements are normal but we also agree on opposition to terrorism”.
Israeli political analysts seemed to agree that this statement was meant to counter that of Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who stated on Saturday once again that Abbas is no partner for peace and that a peace treaty would never be reached as long as Abbas is in office.
Comments such as the one Peres made last week are quite common. During his seven year term, Peres often spoke in favor of the Two State solution and the need to end the conflict with the Palestinians. But general statements, calls for progress in the negotiations and photo-ops were all he offered. Even as his acceptance and popularity grew, the President never put the full weight of his office behind the struggle for peace. Peres never used his immense popularity in order to put Israel back on the road to peace, to sell Israelis on the vision of the Two State Solution like he did in the 90’s and to bring about actual progress in a region where stagnation rules absolute.
Had Peres marketed the Two State solution to Israelis like he marketed Israeli innovation to foreign audiences, the high tech nation might have become a peaceful nation by now. More importantly, Peres is the only public figure in Israel that could have legitimized Mahmud Abbas in the eyes of Israelis thereby countering the popular Israeli narrative that there is no partner for peace in Ramallah. A narrative that has stood firm since it was first introduced by Ehud Barack after the failed Camp David summit of 2000.
Yet Peres did no such thing. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and current Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, Peres is yet another left wing leader that served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s life jacket. Whenever world leaders demanded Netanyahu begin serious negotiations with the Palestinians, Peres was sent to explain that the world must give Netanyahu some more time, that he’s getting there, day by day and inch by inch. Whenever European countries, such as Germany, were outraged by new construction in Israeli settlements, Peres was there to say “Quid pro quo, Angela “, Netanyahu has to throw the settlers a bone every now and then. Whenever and wherever Bibi needed him, Shimon was there to protect and to serve. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate reduced himself to a bullet proof vest.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge Mr. Peres so harshly. After nearly a century of yearning for the love of the common people, maybe Peres simply couldn’t go back to being the most hated man in Israel. After all, the shortest way to go from a list to d list is in Israel is to take a stand on the Israeli occupation and insist on the need to end it. Yet by failing to vigorously promote the peace process Peres sacrificed his own legacy for there is a great difference between being loved by Israel and saving Israel from itself.