Shimon Peres of Israel passed away last week. Though never having made his acquaintance, I was nevertheless somewhat saddened, or at least stirred in my heart. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with eyes and ears tuned to international current affairs, Peres’ was indeed a familiar name. The highest public office Peres attained was that of the Israeli presidency, a largely ceremonial post in the Cabinet-driven politics of Israel. He was also briefly prime minister of Israel every decade or so, but frankly the domestic achievements under his reins were not spectacular.
As such, Peres’ greatest political attainments were definitely those peace overtures to and dealings with the Palestinians during his numerous tenures as foreign minister of Israel. Historical and geographical factors compel both Israelis and Palestinians to try to build their respective nations on almost the same piece of pseudo-isthmus along the east coast of the Mediterranean. The rise of Zionism in the late 19th century inspired many Jews who were persecuted in various parts of the world to emigrate to Palestine, which they considered their ancestral homeland. Peres was once such young immigrant from then part of Poland (now part of Byelorussia) in the early 1930s.
After the Second World War and its horrendous Holocaust, which saw six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis, the new United Nations passed a resolution calling for the simultaneous creation of two side-by-side states, but while Israel quickly announced its formation, the Palestinians did not agree to the resolution and sought to create a Palestinian state encompassing the whole strip of land previously known as the British Mandate of Palestine.
The Palestinian sentiment was echoed by many Arab countries, which forged together a united front to try to snub out the nascent Israel. But with the tacit backing of the Americans and some of the Europeans, Israel did not flinch, not only deterring the Arab offensives but going on to occupy most of those lands intended for a Palestinian state. Thus, the seeds for modern conflicts between the two sides were sown, and Peres’ almost entire political career was entangled therein. At that stage, Peres was instrumental in Israel’s military buildup, although technically he was never a full-fledged member of the military.
Israel is, indeed, a very special country. Due to the de facto encirclement by Arab countries, a siege mentality has dictated since its early days that citizen-soldiery become an ordinary order of the day, with even women serving in its national military service. But a national policy accentuating military primacy there curiously did not lead, as in so many other new countries, to military supremacy. There was never any rule by junta in Israel’s modern history. Instead, parties from the left and right of the political spectrum sometimes ruled separately if they won outright majorities in parliamentary (called Knesset) elections, or more often formed grand coalition. As such, Israel can be said to be a democracy in both form and practice.
Peres was politically aligned with the left, and specifically with the Labor Party, which he helped form. During Peres’ time as foreign minister, if the prime minister of the day happened to hail from the right, especially from the more “hawkish” camp, Peres provided a somewhat “neutralizing” effect, trying his best to make the government’s stance vis-a-vis the Palestinians not overly tough. Of course, his aforementioned credentials of having helped build up the military played an important role in this regard, buttressing his political status and expending his political capital in so doing.
But when Peres was able to work under a more peace-minded and similarly pragmatic prime minister, he would be at his prime in exercising his skills in peace matters. The most renowned among these lofty deeds occurred, ironically, during the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin, a fellow Labor politician and erstwhile political rival of Peres. Barely a few months into Rabin’s reign, the formidable pair joined hands in secret negotiations with the Palestinians. When the Oslo Peace Accord was revealed to the world, it came as an unqualified shock. The then American President, Bill Clinton, provided the White House lawn for the signing ceremony. Peres and Rabin, together with their Palestinian counterpart Yasser Arafat, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter, with Peres once again assuming the premiership at a time of national calamity.
In recent years, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been hit by one after another obstacle, and Peres, who was essentially half out of politics, could no longer do much to stem the trend toward more chaos between the two sides. The passing Peres in a sense symbolizes the fading away of a whole generation of pragmatic peacemakers who experienced the horrors of war. Peace is once again an elusive and illusive commodity in the Middle East, with no bright end in sight.