Home / Articles / Shimon Peres (1923-2016): A Man of Contradictions?
Shimon Peres in 2015 (Source: Israeli Association for Diplomacy)
After Shimon Peres suffered a major stroke at age 93 about two weeks ago, his death was widely expected. As a result, obituary writers and their editors all over the world dusted off long-prepared skeletal texts and, with new details about his passing to come, prepared to launch. Now that Shimon is gone, rapidly launched they have: Many dozens of obituaries in many languages have already appeared within the past day or two.
The basic facts rest similarly within each obit, and many bring judgments, fair and otherwise, either directly or through filtered quotations. The result is a corpus of instant literature that, above all, unfailingly and necessarily contradicts itself because the man himself was a great and multifaceted mass of contradiction.
The easiest and, hence, most common trope amid this new literature juxtaposes Peres’s image as a dovish peace-seeker with the fact that he did as much as any man in Israel’s history to build and to strengthen its formidable military power. And that is true; he was the father of Israel’s nuclear deterrent and its arms industry, maker and mender of critical alliances with France and then the United States, and much more besides. Of course, this isn’t really a contradiction. After all, si vis pacem para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”) is a perfectly sound notion that goes back at least to Plato‘s Nomoi (Laws) and clearly energized the thinking of George Washington, among a great many others. But it seems like a contradiction to the encyclopedically simpleminded, and so its popularity is assured among today’s mainstream media jockeys.
The truth is that Peres’s attitude toward the use of violence was not merely preparatory for defense and deterrence. Peres served as Prime Minister twice—once as a part of a peculiar rotation arrangement between Labor and Likud that began after the 1984 elections, with Peres as Head of Government for the first 25 months and Yitzhak Shamir for the second 25 months. During his first time as Prime Minister, Peres could not act independently; it was only in 1995, after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that Peres became an unfettered—if unelected—Prime Minister in his own right, and then only until he led the Labor Alignment to a loss in the 1996 elections—elections Peres called early in certainty that he would win them.
He lost in large part because he ordered massive air and artillery attacks in Lebanon—Operation Grapes of Wrath—in response to Hizballah provocations against the unsettling background of a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks mainly in and around Jerusalem. That attack included the disastrous destruction of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) compound at Qana on April 14, 1996, where more than 700 Lebanese civilians had taken refuge from the fighting. More than 100 died in the shelling. The Israeli government at that time also was shown to have lied about its reconnaissance of the site. One member of Peres’s own cabinet called the attack “a desecration of God’s name.”
Now, Peres had been one of David Ben-Gurion’s “boys” back in the early days of the state, along with Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Teddy Kollek, and others. He was there when Ben-Gurion ordered IDF reprisal raids, like the October 1953 attack into the Jordanian village of Qibya (led by none other than a young Ariel Sharon), that were in many instances disproportionate to the violence that triggered them. He learned to be a hawk, as necessary, while in the presence of his mentor, and he never entirely lost the knack. In April 1996, he followed Ben-Gurion’s model, probably thinking too that a show of strength at that moment of anxiety was needed to ensure Labor’s upcoming election victory. The attacks backfired both in Lebanon and in Israeli domestic politics.
His decisions in 1996 were not out of character. Peres was one of the architects of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, a war that, whatever else it did, more closely identified Israel with the hated colonial powers in the eyes of the Arabs and many other non-Western peoples. He also urged then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to adopt a military response to the 1976 Entebbe hijacking, a commando attack that turned out spectacularly well—but didn’t have to.
The real contradiction of Shimon Peres’s political career is something different. Once he became part of the Labor Party’s political elite, he was always on the dovish side of the party, yet he ended up being a godsend—one should excuse the choice of vocabulary—to the dramatically more hawkish Revisionist wing of Zionism, to the Herut and later Likud parties. Let us count the ways.
In the spring of 1967, Peres tried to assemble a national unity government that would have brought Ben-Gurion out of retirement and paired him with Menachem Begin. Ben-Gurion wanted nothing to do with Begin believing that, as the New York Times obituary noted, that if Begin ever came to power, it would bring Israel to “the precipice of destruction.” Indeed, Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion’s first and official biographer, judged that Peres would go down in history as “the man who legitimated Begin and the Herut.”
About ten years later, Peres challenged Rabin for the Labor Party leadership, but lost. This competition had a history: after the October 1973 War, Peres had also made a bid for the Labor Party leadership, but to stop him—his reputation for vanity, power hunger, and press leaking already well-established among his peers—the party’s core leadership recruited Rabin, who had been Ambassador in the United States, to prevent Peres’s ascension. That worked, and in 1974, Rabin was elected. Rabin then named Peres Defense Minister in that government, a decision he later rued. In Rabin’s 1979 memoir, published first in Hebrew, he lambasted Peres as being untrustworthy, devious, and unscrupulous; in the condensed English translation put out by Little, Brown, the language about Peres was toned down.
Meanwhile, Peres, in 1977, again challenged Rabin for the party leadership, and, again, he lost. However, a scandal involving some fairly innocent dollar-denominated bank accounts Rabin had established while living as Ambassador in Washington forced him to resign; Peres took over the party leadership and led it to defeat. His dogged competition with Rabin had split the party in such a way that in May 1977, for the first time since the birth of the state, a Revisionist came to power—Menachem Begin himself.
Peres then managed to deflect an attempted Rabin comeback in the run-up to the 1981 election, and he again led the Labor Party to defeat. As already noted, in 1984—after having effectively helped Begin into power in May 1977—Peres helped Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s successor, back into power via the 1984-86 national unity rotation government. The Labor Alignment won more votes than Likud in the 1984 election, but not enough to establish a center-left majority government.
Peres probably had options to form a government without Likud, but decided not to avail himself of them. What transpired after the rotation, perhaps, explains why. Once Peres and Shamir switched portfolios, Peres, as Foreign Minister, began secret negotiations, mostly in London, with Jordan’s King Hussein over a “framework” for peace that would have returned most of the occupied territory to Jordan in return for a peace agreement. In April 1987, a preliminary agreement was reached, but it was conditional on settling some very neuralgic issues concerning the Palestinians and the PLO and, of course, on the Israeli government as a whole accepting the deal. Peres was not exactly transparent with Shamir about what he was up to, and when he returned from London, he refused to give Shamir a copy of the agreement. Peres seems to have thought that the breakthrough would cause the collapse of the government and that Peres could then force a new election he would win outright.
That’s not what happened. Once Shamir discovered the details and what remained undecided, he disavowed the agreement. In December 1987, the first intifada began, and soon thereafter, in 1988, King Hussein, deeply disappointed in Peres’s failure to get the agreement implemented, disavowed all Jordanian interests and responsibilities west of the Jordan River. Shamir won the 1988 election and remained Prime Minister until 1992.
Peres then joined Rabin’s 1992 government as Foreign Minister and, again without the Prime Minister’s full knowledge or assent, began a new series of secret contacts—this time leading ultimately to the September 1993 Oslo Accords. Some argue that Rabin was genuinely persuaded as to the merits of Oslo, others that a manipulative Peres had driven him into a corner. Whatever the case, Rabin, though willing to proceed, remained skeptical and guarded about the whole business, while Peres announced—after the famous handshake and ceremony on the White House lawn—that he was “100 percent sure” that peace had come.
Alas, it had not. It has since become fashionable to depict Oslo as a disaster for Israel. Not so. For its own unity and political coherence going forward, Israel needed to put Palestinian intentions to a real and unmistakable test. It did so, and while the results have been broadly depressing, they have also been broadly clarifying. Israel’s relative strength and prosperity today is vastly greater than it was in the mid-1990s, so Israel sacrificed nothing tangible on account of the Oslo experiment. Moreover, without Oslo, there could have been no peace between Israel and Jordan: a peace that is of critical strategic and diplomatic value to Israel now and, very likely, will be even more so in the future.
As already noted, in 1996, after Rabin’s assassination, Peres once again led the party to electoral defeat, opening the way for Benjamin Netanyahu’s ascent within Israeli politics. But Peres was still not finished with his political maneuverings. Ehud Barak replaced Peres as Labor Party head in 1999 and went on to win election. In 2001, however, after the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of new Palestinian-instigated violence, Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister. Peres, again Labor Party head, took Labor into a national unity government coalition with Sharon, and when Sharon formed a new centrist party, Kadima, in 2005, Peres left Labor to become a member.
Now, one might argue that by so doing Peres helped to spread the legitimation of Sharon within the Israeli body politic; nevertheless, it is clear that by then Sharon had experienced a genuine change of view—becoming, in effect, as some have aptly put it, Israel’s Charles DeGaulle. Nevertheless, Peres’s vault into Kadima sealed the impression that his lust for the limelight enabled him to latch on to any pretext necessary to remain beneath its glow.
Both age and experience (not his, but the people’s with him), in time, put an end to Peres’s high-political career. So, he decided in 2007 to re-attract the limelight by running for president—a mostly, but not entirely, ceremonial position within Israel’s political system. He won on the second ballot and fairly soon began to do trans-ceremonial things that created a more-difficult-than-usual relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister—in this case, Prime Minister Netanyahu. He remained president for the full seven-year term retiring in 2014.
A second, lesser Peres contradiction begs brief comment. For all of his political ambitions and wiles, Peres was a lifelong functionalist. It came through all of Peres’s ten books in one way or another, but particularly in The New Middle East (1993), Battling for Peace: A Memoir (1995), For the Future of Israel (1998), and The Imaginary Voyage: With Theodor Herzl in Israel (1999).
Peres believed that material incentives could override political passions and that science and technology provided an unfailing balm to political progress. He thought that the advent of the internet would doom authoritarianism, including Arab authoritarianism. In this he called to mind the otherwise mostly trenchant Thomas Carlysle, who once wrote, “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable.”
This wasn’t true in the 19th century for Carlysle; it wasn’t true in the 20th century for Peres and all the other temperamental Whigs who took it as gospel; and it isn’t true in the 21st century either. There are times when functional cooperation can reinforce a fragile political undertaking, and there are times when functional cooperation can work as a backstop against a—deterioration in relations. But such cooperation cannot drive fundamental political judgments, and to rely on it to do so is to live in a kind of delusionary trance. As Lord Vansittart once put it, “He who would build castles in the sky risks bricks falling on his head.”
The dovish, functionally driven optimism of Peres’s later years was not entirely without benefit to Israel. Optimism truly is a force multiplier, as a former boss of mine used to insist, and given the natural gloom liable to shadow Israel’s impenetrable dilemmas, optimism may matter most if only because it enables patience and rewards the stoicism without which reasonable normal life in Israel could not long endure. Peres also provided an Israeli face to the world—particularly to post-bellicist Europe and liberal America—that long did wonders for Israeli public relations.
In this role, including as President from 2007-2014, Peres was no pushover dreamer on the world stage. He spoke truth when necessary about double standards and the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world. He could and would go toe-to-toe with the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a public stage. No doubt that is why some recent obituaries characterize Peres as a war criminal—the Middle East Monitor’s account being one case in point. If someone like Shimon Peres can be a war criminal, then all Israelis must be war criminals in this hateful view—simply on account of their being alive and living where they do. This, too, is, or ought to be, very clarifying.
Shimon Peres’s optimism was not an individualist quirk. Indeed, whatever his differences—temperamental, personal, ideological—with his mover-and-shaker high-politics Israeli peers, what it is fair to call the second generation of Israel’s founding fathers (and mothers—let’s not forget Golda Meir, Ora Namir, and many others) all shared a kind of generational optimism. That is because they earned the right to it. If you stand back far enough and try to understand what life was like for these people in their own shoes, so to speak, it is not hard to see why.
Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski in August 1921 in Wiszniew, Poland (now within the borders of Belarus). His parents took him to then-British Mandatory Palestine when he was 11 years old. If Poland in the early 1920s could be a problematic place for Jews, Palestine in the 1930s was not wildly less so. Peres and his peers experienced the Arab Uprising of 1936-39 as young people, the apparent British betrayal of the promises made in the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate, and then World War and Holocaust. They then willy-nilly experienced and participated in Israel’s harrowing War for Independence and knew firsthand the fragility and poverty of the early state years and its many external and internal challenges. And they lived through the trials and exhilaration of the spring of 1967, as well.
Understand, then, that from their perspective, each decade, each challenge faced and overcome, has seen an Israel growing ever stronger. Whatever the threats of the moment—no matter how serious they may seem—someone like Shimon Peres, no less than Yitzhak Shamir, could look out of the window of his office toward a unified Jerusalem and conclude, in effect, “You know, things are not so bad.”
Peres enjoyed a loving marriage that lasted six and half decades, had three healthy and successful children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. If seven decades on the public stage did not suffice for him, he certainly had enough sense to appreciate that his family did.
Shimon Peres: Inspirational or exasperating? Both. Wise or foolish? Both. Selfless or selfish? Both. Humble or egotistical? Both, in his own way. A complicated and contradictory man he was. One can only hope that, when all is said and done—if it ever is—his memory will be for a blessing.
 Note, for example, Efraim Karsh, The Oslo Disaster (BESA Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 123, September 2016).
 The basic argument in my Israel and Jordan in the Shadow of War: Functional Ties and Futile Diplomacy in a Small Place (Macmillan/St. Martin’s, 1992).