In March 1975, as the negotiations over the disengagement agreement with Egypt reached a low point, Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres went to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a new idea. Israel had rejected the American demand, conveyed by Henry Kissinger, that it withdraw its forces from the Mitla and Gidi passes—strategic areas in the Sinai Peninsula occupied by Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The row with Kissinger led to President Gerald Ford’s decision to “reassess” the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It was one of the most difficult moments in the history of that relationship, and Peres was looking for a way out, a formula for compromise.
Rabin was “stunned” when he heard Peres’ idea: Israel would withdraw from the passes, and the area would come under international control—U.S. forces on the eastern side and Soviet forces on the western side. “Had I not heard, with my own ears, a senior government Minister suggest that Israel herself would request the entry of Soviet troops into the Sinai, and insert them as a buffer between her and Egypt—I would have been certain that Peres’ vile enemies were spreading lies about him,” wrote Rabin is his memoirs, now quoted in Michael Bar-Zohar’s new biography, Shimon Peres.
The rivalry between Peres and Rabin is one of the themes that runs through the book, but even more significant is Peres’ tendency toward “mass production of creative plans and ideas.” More than once, notes Bar-Zohar, “his creativity has gone too far. That was a typical trait of his character, for which many called him ‘a man of fantasies’ and of far fetched ideas.” In Israel they still do. “Peres himself admitted”—in an interview with his biographer—”that he would be satisfied if only half of his ideas came to fruition”.
Peres had many good ideas, and many bad ones, but he always had ideas, and he always fought for them. Many of them did come to fruition: the strategic alliance with France in the ‘50s, the Dimona nuclear project in the ‘60s, the Oslo accords in the ‘90s. Peres, argues Bar-Zohar, is “a mediocre politician, yet a statesman of splendid vision.” You could also argue the exact opposite. How else can his astonishing political career—spanning more than 60 years and counting—be explained?
Peres is the ultimate political survivor. Now, in his 84th year, he is seeking the presidency of the country to which he has dedicated his life and energy. And we can predict only this much: If he loses, yet again, it will not be the end of him. Peres has already lost the presidency once, in 2000, when the Knesset instead chose Moshe Katsav for the largely ceremonial position. He was also able to lose the 1996 election—the first direct vote for prime minister—to Benjamin Netanyahu, astonishing those who thought his victory was all but settled, half a year after the assassination of his fellow Laborite Rabin. Peres, truth be told, won an election only once—in 1984—and even then it was just an illusion: He won the election, but he wasn’t able to form a government. Peres had to settle for a unity government with a rotation at the helm: After two years of Peres as prime minister, he had to move to the foreign ministry and cede the premiership to Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir.
But Peres is the man who never quits. If this biography does him justice, it is because it serves as a reminder of his contribution to the state of Israel. Something most Israelis forgot long ago.
Beyond his nation’s borders, Shimon Peres is known as an elder statesman, a Nobel Prize winner, a man of peace—after all, he initiated the Oslo accords and pushed for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israelis see him as the perpetual political loser that he is. They mostly think of Peres as the “relentless underminer”—a Rabin coinage. “He deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of Records as the champion of absorbing blows and insults,” according to political analyst Nahum Barnea.
That’s why this book (just out in English, published last year in Hebrew) is so important and so illuminating. It will save the world from looking at Peres through misleading lenses (this apparent dove bears significant responsibility for the settlement boom of the early ‘70s), but more important, it will make Israelis more appreciative of his long years in politics.
Peres might want to be remembered as the man who brought peace to Israel, but his most notable peace initiative—the Oslo accords—remains controversial. Here’s what the new book tells us in a way that’s hard to dispute: Peres’ real achievements involve security, not peace. The arms deals securing Israel the means to defend itself right after its inception; the nuclear vision, against all odds and over many objections; the Entebbe operation—when the IDF was able to free hostages in a breath-taking raid on a faraway airport in Uganda.
And his personal story is also the reminder we need—especially at a time when voices are again calling for the destruction of Israel—of the significance of security in the 60 years of Israel’s existence. Here’s a boy from the village of Vishneva on the border of Poland and Belarus embarking on a journey to build a new homeland for his persecuted tribe. “Be a Jew, forever!” his grandfather Zvi Meltzer told the young Shimon Persky when he left home for Palestine in 1935. “These were the last words Shimon ever heard his grandfather say. Zvi Meltzer, and with him all the members of the Persky and Meltzer families who remained in Vishneva, were massacred by the Nazis during World War 2,” notes Bar-Zohar.
This is a melancholy book for Israelis. Peres is the last founding father still active, and reading about his life is a reminder of the treacherous waters Israel had to navigate to become what it is today: a strong, vibrant, democratic, prosperous country in a bad neighborhood. But it is also a sad reminder of its declining class of leaders.
Peres, for all the flaws this book so mercilessly reveals, is a giant compared with Israel’s current leaders. Reminding people of this will be the book’s ultimate victory—and we can only hope that Peres, relentless and insistent as always, will not stand in its way.