Israel mourns Shimon Peres, the last of the Founding Fathers

Another day, one more minute please, he still had to conclude something; he was not yet finished. And so Death waited a little, as if to imply that his work was so important, but miracles are not of this world, even if, after having had a stroke on September 13th, it seemed like he was snapping back, and his family stopped crying for a few days. Now, the press has left the corridor of the hospital, commentators who have already done their obits have stopped praising or vituperating him.unnamed-1

Shimon, however, is gone, it’s a shame; during this short interval I thought he was truly eternal. Even on the day of the stroke Shimon Peres had posted a video in which he enthusiastically invited people to buy Israeli products, especially fruit: “Everyone wants an Israeli fruit platter!”

Many think that he made too many mistakes, sometimes creating dangerous situations for Israel, and even that the support he lent to the peace cause was a gimmick too politically correct to be fully honest. Perhaps: it did not help any peace process his insistence on the hope for a deal with the Palestinians even during the Second Intifada; was useless his hope that Arafat could suddenly show, instead of the hateful grin, a smiling face like the one he presented when together with Rabin he had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, in the wake of the useless yet highly praised Oslo Agreement.

But his style, his unflinching passion for the Jewish State and complete resolve to preserve its security while carrying the Israeli flag around the world as a banner of peace, have instead done much good for the country. His figure enhanced Israel throughout the world and everybody had to know, speaking with him, that for Peres peace and Zionism were never separated, peace and security were for him one single breath, and so were even peace and the atomic bomb: it was, Peres, on Ben-Gurion’s behalf to be its chief advocate, and its real creator. Without his ability of negotiating with the French seeking the necessary help, Israel could never have had its decisive defense weapon.

An entire book of interviews I’ve done over the years with Shimon Peres floods my desk. One of the first occurred almost thirty years ago while he was going from Amsterdam to London: there in the middle of the night I sat waiting for him, half asleep, at a table at the foot of his bed in the guest room of the royal house. Then he came in, exhausted but ready to talk about his trip toward the innovative aim of meeting personally the arab leaders, speaking, discussing, shaking their hand: as usual instead of enunciating he murmured, it was as if held back at least part of his dream in his heart even while he communicated with you. Too much to say. It was an extraordinary moment. He was going to London to meet, in secret, King Hussein in order to weave the fabric of what from there would in a few years become known as the Oslo Accords.

Direct meetings with the Palestinians and with the Arab world in general were taboo at that time, and stayed that way for quite a while. With regard to my personal memories about it,. there is an important one: once Uri Savir, his right hand man, phoned me to ask if I had a way of finding a quiet place in Italy for a secret summit. A clever Florentine noblewoman, Bona Frescobaldi (I mention here her name to credit her) immediately got ready one of her country houses in order to host two delegations who arrived in the middle of the night. I think Abu Mazen also attended.

Peres composed in silence and shouting, in the light of the sun and in the corridors of power, that peace which never came, his new Middle East that I now teared into today Islamist chaos. He certainly took a very rocky road and would come up against insurmountable obstacles. He never wanted to consider the terrible Islamic determination to eliminate the Jewish State, he believed in progress. So let it be with Caesar.

This is because Peres was the wonderful socialist Polish Perski boy, a Zionist full of internationalist zeal. Shimon Perski. When he married Sonia they slept in tent on the sand, didn’t eat, always worked for a the new marvelous dream of Zionism. He is the only Israeli who has been both President (from 2007 to 2014) and Prime Minister (from 1984 to 1986 and then after Rabin’s death, of which he was the adversarial political twin, from November 1995 to June 1996). Joys and pains are part of the history of these high offices, as were all of the numerous other posts he held: three times as Foreign Minister, twice as Defense Minister, and once as Finance Minister and another as Transport Minister. His extraordinary achievements, however, were often punctuated by tremendous criticism and political defeats: the most poignant were perhaps those of 1977 because it was the first time that the Labor Party, in a semi-socialist country like Israel, lost power; and then surely that of 1996, when power passed to Netanyahu. The war that he endured inside his own party, where Ehud Barak prevented him from becoming leader of the party in 1999, is comparable only to his defeat, very disgraceful, for the office of President of Israel when Moshe Katzav was instead elected in 2000: but this post that he would later reclaim in 2007.

Because on the other hand, he won so many political battles, including first and foremost the Oslo agreements that even Rabin fro a while kept opposing. It’s difficult to even list them. In addition to his magnificent cultural interests and his poetic writing, he also practiced a great deal of ” Realpolitik” throughout his career. With his return in 2001, he happily substituted Ehud Barak as leader of the Labor Party; and later he took on, incredibly, the role of Foreign Minister within the Sharon government, in an acrobatic turn, joining a man who could have been his worst enemy.

He prepared, at the cost of heavy criticism from all sides, the evacuation of Gaza that Sharon wanted and who had him as a supporter.

The Second Intifada saw him desperately trying not to let his dream be crushed by the suicide terrorists explosions, but also in the frequently futile attempt to reawaken the world to Israel’s reasons, which he never abandoned. There are traces in all his interviews and speeches: he hated the mindless scapegoating of his country. He knew all too well that its face had come to be continually defamed and stirred incitement in the world, and I think that’s why we remained friends even when it was really impossible for me to share his hope of peace based on the Oslo Accords. He was generous. When I visited him with a delegation from the Italian Parliament he asked the head of the group: “When will you give her back to us?”. For him one thing, beyond political ideas, was the most morally important: to be a defendant of Israel. Of the security of Israel. From this, his appreciation.

Peres was certainly brilliant: his passion for high tech, his blazing curiosity for nanotechnology, his admiration for Mark Zuckerberg whom he called “that 27-year-old Jewish boy” were all connected to his fundamental idea. In the sense that he saw in Facebook and the like the real revolution, that of his heart, that of a young Israeli socialist kibbutznik who from the first hour intended to overcome every border, every barrier. This never entered albeit for any reason into opposition with his idea that self-defense, courageously undertaken by the army and by its own citizens, is Israel’s only possible choice. Good relations with the US or with Europe, of which he cared about, never cancelled his declared determination to combat terrorism, to build security fences, to fight terrorists in any way possible while being very cautious when thinking about ceding territories.

But his ability to radiate intelligence and hope was that of a pope, of a movie star, of an icon adored by all. As the partisan man that he was, he nonetheless represented Israel in its entirety: his face displayed either all the suffering for the persecutions and then all the joy of the Jewish people who had returned home. He lived minute-by-minute both the fatigue and victory of Israel’s construction. There is no longer anyone like him.

Translation by Amy K. Rosenthal

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (September 29, 2016)

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.