The Peres Philosophy and its impact on my career

Yesterday we marked 5 years since the death of Shimon Peres, a founding parent of Israel whose lifelong dedication to his country led him to become the only Israeli leader to serve as both President and Prime Minister, as well as many more leadership positions. I had the privilege to serve on his team of advisors when he was Foreign Minister and President. The following is a description of the enduring impact he’s had on me and my country.

The two main pillars of Peres’s vision for the future of Israel were peace and innovation. Under Peres’s leadership, Israel saw a swift climb to the forefront of innovation in science and technology, his aspirations for peace were more difficult to realize.

Peres’s philosophy is sorely lacking in today’s political landscape. The unique elements of his philosophy have immense potential for turning Israel into an innovator and initiator of proactive diplomacy for peace. The approach described below distinguished him from other Israeli leaders who often treated any development in the Middle East with alarm and hostility, blinding them to potential opportunities to advance peace.

After many years working alongside him, I’ve boiled the “Peres Philosophy” down to the following four core elements: Responsibility and Initiative, Win-Win Perspective, Everlasting Optimism, and Orientation Towards the Future.

How the Peres Philosophy Shaped my Politics & Diplomatic Approach

I was first introduced to the “Peres Philosophy” of leadership and diplomacy in March 1993, when I completed the new diplomats’ cadet course at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and was sent to the Foreign Minister’s office as a junior staffer. This was a pivotal moment early in my career that shaped my approach as a diplomat, foreign policy advisor, and later as an advisor at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, where I continue to promote Shimon Peres’s vision.

My journey by President Peres’ side is perhaps surprising given my early political influences. I was raised on Kibbutz Manara, founded by my parents on the border with Lebanon. As a young man, I was strongly influenced by my father, an active member in the Kibbutz and Labor movements on issues of defense and, as a fluent Arabic speaker, relations with Arab communities. My father was close to the leaders of the Haganah and the Palmach, the pre-state Jewish paramilitary organizations the preceded the IDF. These early leaders included Yigal Alon, Israel Galili, and eventually Yitzhak Rabin, whose sister Rachel was, along with my parents, part of the group of pioneers who founded Kibbutz Manara in 1943. All of these figures were political rivals of Ben Gurion’s camp, of which Shimon Peres was a part.

I was also strongly influenced by my service as an officer in the IDF, where I became an admirer of the masculine leadership style of former military Generals like Rabin. Conversely, I saw Peres as a politician with an awkward accent, not a powerful leader.

Nonetheless, it was to the office of then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that I was sent. My placement there wasn’t more than a coincidence. Peres’s chief of staff, Avi Gil, wanted to add someone young and fresh to the team, someone without the baggage of the Foreign Ministry’s organizational culture. Apparently, the training department thought that I was ripe enough.

Despite my preconceptions, I felt from my first days on Peres’s team that I had the best job in the world. Peres’s Foreign Ministry was leading the Oslo peace process – a unique situation in Israel’s political history which has seen the Foreign Ministry typically marginalized from matters of national security. But I also felt fortunate to be working alongside a talented team hand-selected by Peres: Yossi Beilin as Deputy Minister, Uri Savir as Director General, and Avi Gil as Chief of Staff. These were not military men with the kind of outward machismo I had once identified with strong leadership.

Following Rabin’s assassination, Peres became Prime Minister and I remained in the Foreign Minister’s office under Ehud Barak, who entered politics after a decorated military career that culminated in his serving as IDF Chief of the General Staff. For Barak, the Foreign Ministry was a mere political springboard for him to become Prime Minister and under him the Foreign Ministry was no longer at the center of the peacemaking process.

What made Peres so different?

To understand what made Peres a unique leader, one must first understand something about the Israeli psyche. Why is it that Israelis – who are so creative, risk-taking, and dynamic when it comes to technology, art and, culture – are so fearful, risk-averse, and rigid when it comes to security and diplomacy?

The answer is that most of us are a traumatized people. Our collective past – the Holocaust, the pogroms, and the anti-Semitism that Jews encountered in exile – is present in every conversation about Israel’s national security and is the root of our obsession with security and self-sufficiency.

I first came to this realization on an educational trip to the Nazi death camps in Poland. The reactions of most of my peers showed me how they carried the trauma of the past, from generation to generation. I felt differently because I was raised on a Kibbutz, where I was taught that Israelis were a new kind of Jew: strong workers of the land with nothing to fear. It was on that trip that I learned that most of us are, however, still mentally in the ‘shtetls’ of Europe.

Peres should have been as traumatized as anybody else. He had come to Israel from a ‘shtetl’ at age 11 and the grandfather he had so admired, the Chief Rabbi of Vishnieva, had been burned alive by the Nazis in his synagogue along with his entire congregation. And yet, Peres strongly believed that it was not enough for Zionism to bring the Jew out of the ‘shtetl’ to Israel, but that we must also take the ‘shtetl’ out of the Jewish mentality. Peres believed that the Jews of Israel had to learn to leave this trauma in the past, as it was unhelpful emotional baggage to carry in the present.

With this understanding, I came to subscribe to a new leadership style embodied by Peres. He rejected the sense of victimhood felt amongst the Israeli public, abstaining from manipulating it to his advantage as other Israeli leaders had.

Responsibility and Initiative

Peres believed that the role of Zionism was to empower the Jews to act as writers of their own destiny, rather than as passive recipients of history. With our own state, we can define our own fate; Peres believed it was time for us to take the initiative in leading ourselves.

Peres was influenced in this regard by his mentor, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who insisted on declaring Israel’s independence despite knowing that it would mean war with all her neighbors.

An extension of this attitude, Peres had no patience for the repetitive ‘blame game’ where Israel blamed its problems on Arab terrorism and European anti-Semitism.

Peres didn’t think that Israel needed to wait for the Middle East to become Scandinavia in order to achieve peace, he believed in initiating and achieving peace with our neighbors as they existed, tough as they may be. He always said that there are two things in life that one couldn’t achieve unless they close their eyes a little bit — love and peace; if you look for perfection, you will achieve neither.

My first foreign post as a political advisor was to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. There, I learned much about diplomacy and applied some of the insights I had gained from Peres and his team, the most valuable being a sense of responsibility and initiative over our diplomatic relations.

I was serving then under the first Netanyahu Government that replaced the Peres Government. I saw how Israel neglected its own faults and present itself to the world as infallible.  Playing the “blame game” was the main strategy of Israeli “Hasbara” (public diplomacy) and it seemed counterproductive to me. Instead of playing a major role in reaching peace with our neighbors, we invested our energy in proving to the world how evil they are and why it is their fault that there is no peace.

When blaming others, you often shirk accountability for your own contribution to an issue. Peres believed that in order to improve Israel’s external relations, it must first improve internally, beginning with the acknowledgment of its own faults.

He believed in taking initiative and responsibility over Israel’s international relationships. Whether it be between national governments or spouses, a sense of proactivity and personal accountability can go far.

Win-Win, not Zero-Sum

When I returned to Israel from Washington in August 2001, I was happy to rejoin Peres’s Foreign Ministry as policy advisor to his Director General Avi Gil. But when the Labor party left the Sharon government and Peres left the Foreign Ministry, I decided to pursue my master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government thanks to a generous fellowship I received from the Wexner Foundation. During my studies, I began to internalize another important lesson Peres had taught me: the importance of avoiding zero-sum thinking.

Peres always looked for win-win opportunities and avoided zero-sum predicaments. Human instinct draws us to try to win in totality rather than choosing mutually beneficial solutions. Perhaps this instinct made sense when humans were survivalists in the wild, but it no longer serves us in the modern world. For me, this concept came into perspective during a negotiation workshop at Harvard in which my classmates and I were told to pair up for an arm-wrestling tournament with a $10 prize for each match won. Only a few in the class understood that we could win more money through cooperation rather than competition; by letting each other succeed, we could win more matches and share the prizes.

It didn’t take a Harvard education for Peres to understand that there is no inherent conflict between empathy and advocacy. He used to inquire before and during every meeting about the other side’s culture and interests. He pushed me to conduct extensive research before each of his diplomatic meetings, fascinating exchanges that always began with a compliment and sincere attention to the needs of his interlocutors.

I saw how this approach made Peres’s meetings so much more productive than those I had participated in with other statesmen who always focused on their own talking points and achieved far less.

Because of this approach, Peres understood well that peace is made between former enemies and not current friends. He tried to find common ground even with his worst rivals and understood that relations can be complex, an enemy on one issue can be a friend on another.

I found this approach very relevant to public diplomacy throughout my career as a diplomat, though it was completely counterintuitive to everything I had been taught at the Foreign Ministry. Most politicians and the public in Israel expect diplomats to “win the debate” in order to achieve positive public opinion for Israel. But I learned through experience what Peres understood intuitively – that more important than “winning the debate” was “winning hearts and minds.” Whereas debate can be satisfying, it is dialogue and honest engagement even with those who think differently than yourself which wins hearts and minds.

Everlasting Optimism

The next time I had the privilege to work with Peres was during his presidency. I had been serving as Consul General to the New England region and felt at the time that I was at the top of my career and completely “in my element” as a diplomat. But this sense of fulfillment came to a screeching halt when the Netanyahu government took office again in 2009.

It became difficult for me to represent the government’s foreign policy agenda and, in an attempt to influence the system from within, I sent a controversial internal memo that criticized the manner in which our government was dealing with the Obama administration. The memo was leaked to the Israeli media and I was reprimanded by the Foreign Minister.

I returned to Israel from Boston quite depressed, knowing that there would be no plum position waiting for me at the Foreign Ministry after this incident. I also knew that I could not in good conscience continue working as an obedient civil servant for a government that was, in my opinion, leading Israel in the wrong direction.

Just when I thought my career as a diplomat had reached a dead end, I received a call from the Director General of the Presidency, Efrat Duvdevani, who encouraged me to apply for an open position as diplomatic advisor to President Shimon Peres. I got the position, and my life was transformed. Because no door was ever closed for Shimon Peres, and because every leader was eager to benefit from his wisdom, I had the unique privilege of meeting nearly all of the world’s leaders as I advised Peres over the final three years of his Presidency.

Peres’s ability to build bridges, even between those with competing interests, was an extension of his lifelong optimism. He used to say that both pessimists and optimists die the same way but live very differently. To be an optimist, he said, is to live a more constructive, healthy, and fun life. Peres came to work every day full of energy and his optimism alone could make things happen. I learned from him that optimism is not just a way to perceive the world, but a way to impact it.

It was apparent to Peres that the self-fulfilling prophecy is a very common phenomenon, and this is a lesson I learned myself throughout my diplomatic career. When we say that we have no partner for peace, we create a situation in which we indeed have no partner. When we say that the world is against us, we behave in a way that, indeed, turns the world against us. When, on the contrary, we embrace hope and optimism, good things happen. And despite the fact that our national anthem itself (“Hatikva”) calls for us to be hopeful, Israelis somewhere along the way seem to have forgotten the constructive power of hope.

Peres’s optimism was not to be mistaken for naiveite, however. He was, in fact, the architect of some of Israel’s most advanced defense capabilities.

Peres used to say he had a license to be optimistic – he was, after all, here when Israel was little more than a barren land with no natural resources, out-gunned, out-manned, and surrounded by enemies. But we nonetheless turned the desert and the swamps into a blossoming garden and developed into one of the most vital economies in the world. These accomplishments are mind-blowing when you think about where we were just 70 years ago.

The same is true when it comes to peace. For years, many said that we would never make peace with our neighbors. But we recently marked 40 years of peace with Egypt and 25 years of peace with Jordan – both our former nemeses with whom we have fought multiple wars. So how is it that we continue to be so pessimistic as a country when the story of Israel is so optimistic?

Until his last day, Peres was completely certain that we could, we should, and we would one day achieve peace with the Palestinians, and I share that belief.

Look to the Future, Not to the Past

In 2014, Peres ended his seven-year tenure as the 9th President of Israel, capping off more than 70 years of state service. It was at that point that I, too, decided to leave civil service and continue working alongside Peres to implement his vision of peace and innovation outside the government.

I joined a group of talented colleagues who had all worked alongside Peres in various capacities over the course of his long career – almost all of them women – along with other creative, determined, and like-minded professionals at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Our work at the Center is a valuable opportunity to help Peres implement his grand vision for a prosperous Israel in a peaceful region.

Peres was often asked what he considered his greatest achievement, and his answer was always the same: “My greatest achievement is what I am going to achieve tomorrow.” Even at more than 90 years of age, Peres was always young at heart.

“The way to determine if you are young or old is not by counting how many years you’ve lived, but by counting your achievements and comparing them with your dreams. If you have more dreams than achievements,” he said, “then you are still young, because you are still looking forwards and not backwards.”

Because he focused on the future, Peres was skeptical of so-called experts who would tell him that something couldn’t be done based on their knowledge of the past. In his view, change was not a linear concept that could be used to extrapolate future predictions, it was an exponential force beyond human understanding. Those who tried to extrapolate from the past, he believed, were basing their predictions on anachronistic paradigms.

I learned this insight time and time again in my own experiences. Looking back on our attempts to analyze the impact which the 2010-2012 Arab Spring would have on Israel, I understand now that the experts who predicted that the movement would change nothing in the Arab world were completely wrong because their estimations were based on the past. They claimed that Egypt has always had a Pharaoh, and that its modern Pharaoh Mubarak would survive the Tahrir Square demonstrations. They were wrong – and we understand now the role that the Arab Spring played in changing the face of the Middle East.

I look back on my own predictions on the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Elections, and how I repeatedly claimed that Trump would not be elected, and I see that my mistake was basing my analysis on my past experience. I made my predictions according to everything I knew about the demographic changes taking place in America at the time, especially in the swing states, but I was completely wrong. I didn’t consider the changes in the American psyche – the backlash to the long liberal trajectory in American politics and the antagonism towards globalization that threatened peoples’ identities.

From those experiences I learned that Peres was right – a leader today must be more of a learner than a knower. In this rapidly changing world, we need to be flexible both intellectually and operationally in order to understand the future. Curiosity will serve us far more than reliance on experience or knowledge will.

Conclusions – “Think Big”

Peres always said that if we would dream more and remember less, the world would be a better place. In his last book No Room for Small Dreams, Peres describes how Israel’s most significant achievements – for example, peace with Egypt and Jordan, or a booming economy in a desert that became blooming by agricultural production – at one time seemed like impossible fantasies, but were realized with creativity, imagination and determination.

Peres’s mantra, “Dream Big”, embodies Israel’s innovative spirit and serves as a leading principle of the Peres Center, which is today the cornerstone of the intersecting worlds of peace and innovation in Israel. I am proud to say that at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, we are working diligently to keep Peres’s philosophy, legacy, and vision alive. It is what guides us every day. We firmly believe that Peres’s vision of peace and innovation is necessary to lead us to peace with our neighbors, a better world, and a safe and prosperous Israel.

But Peres’ philosophy is still sorely needed in today’s political landscape. Israel needs a leader like him now more than ever – a leader with the great combination of a critical mind and hopeful heart. A leader who understands that we have to employ Responsibility and Initiative, Win-Win Perspective, Everlasting Optimism, and Orientation Towards the Future in order to achieve peace. A leader with deep roots and wide wings.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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