Shimon Peres is dead

Shimon Perez died last night. The story of the tough, tireless politician's life also provides a valuable insight into Israel's modern history.


Shimon Peres was a genius when it came to staging himself. All his life he cared for his public persona. The picture replaced man. So to say, all the articles written about him after he fell into a coma were about the fictional person, not the real one. As Americans like to say: He is so fake that he is real.

On the surface, there are some similarities between Peres and me. He was only 39 days older than me. He came to this country a few months after me, when we were both ten years old. I was sent to Nahalal, a cooperative village, a so-called moss sea. He was sent to Ben Shemen, a farming village for youth. We are both optimists, and we have both been practically active throughout our lives. That's where the similarity ends.

I came here from Germany where we were a wealthy family. In Palestine, we quickly lost all our money. I grew up in extreme poverty. He came from Poland. His family was also prosperous in Palestine. I retained a weak German accent, he retained a strong polish. Even as a child, something about him annoyed the other students at the Jewish school in his small hometown. He was often beaten up. His younger brother used to defend him. "Why do they hate me so much?" Remembers his brother asking Shimon.

In Ben Shemen he still used the name Persky. One of his teachers suggested that he take a Hebrew name, as most of us did. The teacher recommended Ben Amotz, the name of the prophet Isaiah – but it was taken by another student, Dan Tehilimsager, who also became a famous man. So the teacher suggested Peres, the name of a large bird.

Shimon Peres has been a childbirth politician – a real politician, a complete politician, a politician and nothing else.

We first met when we were both 30 years old. He was already secretary of state in the Ministry of Defense, while I was the chief editor of a magazine that upset the country. Peres invited me to the ministry to ask me not to print an investigative article we had written (about the sinking of the ship to illegal refugees at the port of Haifa, conducted by Haganah – a Jewish paramilitary organization – before Israel was founded). Our meeting was about two men who disliked each other from the first moment. The basis for my dislike was laid already before the meeting. During the 1948 War ("The War of Independence"), I was a member of a command unit called "Samson's Foxes." All those who fought as soldiers in that war despised peers who could not be recruited. Perez did not enlist; he was sent abroad by David Ben-Gurion to buy weapons. An important job – which could just as well have been done by a sixty year old. This relationship hung over Peres' head for many years. It explains why people his age disliked him while they loved Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Alon and their friends.

ARAFAT IS DEAD OSLO 19941210. NOBEL'S PEACE PRICE 1994. The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize is divided between Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Here the award winners together with the medal and diploma in Oslo City Hall. Stock Photo: Lise Åserud / SCANPIX
Nobel Peace Prize 1994. The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize is divided between Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Lise Åserud / SCANPIX

Shimon Perez was a child politician – a real politician, a complete politician, a politician and nothing else. No other interests, no hobbies. It already started in Ben Shemen. Peres was an outsider type there, a new immigrant who was different from all the tanned, athletic boys who had lived there for a long time. A small charming face didn't help. Still, the carpenter's daughter Sonja fell for him, the one who became his wife. He strived to be liked by friends and to be accepted as one of them. He joined "Working Youth", the youth organization of the all-powerful trade union Histadruth, and eventually became very active. As the local boys, who called themselves Sabras, did not like political activity, Peres rose to the ranks and quickly became an instructor.

His first opportunity came after he completed his studies in Ben Shemen and joined a Labor Party kibbutz (Mapai), which ruled the Jewish community with iron hand. When the party split, virtually all the youth leaders went to "Fraction B", the opposition group. Peres was almost the only one who remained faithful to the majority faction. In this way, he attracted the attention of the party's student leader Levy Eshkol.

It was a brilliant political maneuver. His former comrades despised him, but he now had contact with top management in the party. Eshkol made Ben-Gurion aware of him, and when the 1948 war broke out, the party chief sent him to the United States to buy weapons.

From then on worked Peres as Ben-Gurion's right hand. He admired his boss, and most importantly: He became Ben-Gurion's political successor. Ben-Gurion characterized the new state with his political vision, and it can be argued that the state moves along the track he drew to this day. Peres was one of his most important helpers.

Ben-Gurion did not believe in peace. His views were based on the presumption that the Arabs would never agree to peace with the Jewish state, based on what had been their land. There would be no peace – at least not for a very, very long time. Therefore, the new state needed a strong western power as an ally. All logic suggested that such an ally could only be found in the ranks of imperialist powers, where they feared Arab nationalism.

It was a vicious circle: In order to defend itself against the Arabs, Israel needed an anti-Arab colonial power as an ally. Such an alliance would only increase the Arabs' hatred of Israel. And so on and so forth, right up to this day.

The first potential ally was the United Kingdom. But it didn't matter – the British preferred to embrace Arab nationalism. But just at the right moment, another ally appeared on the scene: France.

The French had an extensive empire in Africa. Algeria, officially a French ministry, revolted in 1954. Both sides fought with fierce brutality. The French, unable to believe that the Algerians would rise against them, blamed the new leader in Egypt. But no country was prepared to assist them in their "dirty war". Except for one.

For several years, Perez enjoyed the new love of the people, which had been his goal all his life.

Ben-Gurion began to drag over the years, fearing the new Pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser. Nasser was young, energetic, stylish and charismatic, and besides, a catchy speaker – simply different from the old Arab leaders Ben-Gurion was used to. So when France reached out to him, Ben-Gurion greedily grabbed it.

It turned the old vicious circle over again: Israel supported French oppression of the Arabs, Arabs' hatred of Israel increased, and Israel became even more in need of colonial oppressors. In vain I warned against this disastrous process.

Ben-Gurion's envoy to France was Shimon Peres. With his help, the process reached unprecedented heights. An example: When the UN debated a proposal to improve the conditions of incarcerated Algerian leader Ahmed Ben Bella, Israel was the only country in the UN to vote against. (The French themselves boycotted the meeting.)

This terrible alliance reached its climax during the Suez crisis of 1956, when France, the United Kingdom and Israel jointly attacked Egypt. This operation was condemned by most countries in the world, and the United States and the Soviet Union made common cause, so that the three co-conspirators had to withdraw. Israel had to give back the large area the country had occupied.

The French brought Charles de Gaulle back to power, and he realized that he had to end this meaningless war. Peres continued to pay tribute to the alliance, which he declared was based not only on mutual interest but on deep shared values. I published this speech sentence by sentence, with my comments on each of them. I predicted that as soon as the Algerian war was over, France would drop Israel like a glowing piece of coal and restore its relations with the Arab world. And that was, of course, exactly what happened. (And Israel chose the United States instead.)

Among the fruits of the Suez adventure was the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Myth wants it to be honored by Israel as a gift of gratitude for Peres' services. In reality, it was part of France's agreement with Israel, and also a boost for French industry. Necessary material was obtained in many places by theft and fraud.

Peres was praised in high tones in Israel. It was a praise of a man of war, not of peace.

Perez's career is reminiscent of the myth of Sisyphus, who in the ancient Greek tale was judged by the gods to roll a heavy stone up to the top of a mountain, but every time he reached the finish, the stone slipped from his hands and rolled down to the bottom .

After the Sinai War, Peres' popularity reached a new peak. The organizer of the relationship with France, the man who had provided the nuclear reactor, was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense, and was about to become an important member of the government when everything fell into ruins. Ben-Gurion insisted on uncovering a disgraceful sabotage campaign in Egypt and was deposed by party colleagues. He started a new party, Rafi. Reluctantly, Perez was pressured to join, as was Moshe Dayan, just as reluctantly.

Ben-Gurion was inactive and, as usual, Dayan did nothing – so it was Peres's running for election. With his tireless energy he landed on the cross, but in the election the party won only 10 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, defied all its political stars, and entered powerless opposition. Peres' boulder rolled down to the bottom.

And then came the rescue – nearly. Nasser sent his army into Sinai, and panic erupted in Israel. The Rafi party entered the government. Peres was expected to be appointed Secretary of Defense, but at the last moment, charismatic Dayan got the coveted job. Israel won a crushing victory in six days, and the man with the pirate patch over his eye became a world celebrity. Peres had to deal with a smaller ministry. The stone lay on the bottom again.

There are few of his caliber in our day.

For six years, Peres faltered, while Dayan basked in the admiration of the world's men and (especially) women. But then luck turned again. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and won an incredible opening victory. Dayan crumbled up like a god image of clay. After a while, both Golda Meir and Dayan were forced to step down. Peres was the obvious prime ministerial candidate.

But the amazing thing happened again. Out of nowhere came Yitzhak Rabin, the victor of the Six Day War. He was elected prime minister, but was forced to appoint Peres – whom he could not demand – as defense minister. The stone was halfway up again.

The following years became hell for Rabin. Defense Minister Peres had only one ambition in his life: to humiliate the prime minister and undermine his position. It was a full-time job.

Like a kick to Rabin Peres did something of historical significance: He created the first Israeli settlement in the middle of the occupied West Bank. In doing so, he started a process that is now threatening Israel's future. A furious Rabin gave him a nickname that has stuck with him ever since: "The tireless intrigemaker."

A few years later, Rabin had to announce new elections because fighter planes purchased from the United States landed in Israel on a Friday – too late for the guest of honor to return home without sacrificing the Sabbath. The religious faction revolted. Rabin was obviously top-notch.

Then something happened. It happened one day that Rabin, after resigning as ambassador to the United States, had a US bank account. It was forbidden at that time. Rabin's wife was accused of being behind. Rabin took on the blame and left. Peres took first place on the electoral list, and the stone finally reached the top of the mountain.

In the evening of Election Day, Peres celebrated the victory in advance, when the situation suddenly turned. It was hard to believe, but Menachim Begin, considered by many to be a fascist, had won the election. The stone rolled down.

Just before the war in Lebanon in 1982 (it was during the war I met with Yassir Arafat) Begin was sought by opposition leaders Peres and Rabin, who urged him to invade Lebanon.

Then Begin was struck by Alzheimer's disease and was followed by another terrorist, Yitzhak Shamir. A kind of interregnum followed where neither of the two major parties could rule alone. A rotational system developed in which the two took turns in central positions. In one of his years as prime minister, Perez won indisputable honors as the man who put an end to Israel's three-digit inflation and introduced New Israeli shekel. It is still our currency.

The stone moved up again, when something really horrible happened. Four Arab boys kidnapped a bus full of passengers and drove it south. The bus was stormed. The government claimed that all four were killed during the attack – but then I published a photograph showing that two of them were alive after being arrested. It became clear that they were killed by cold blood by the security forces (Shin Bet).

In the midst of this affair, Shamir was followed by Perez, as was agreed in advance. Peres made sure all the killers were released, including the boss of Shin Bet.

Rabin came to power again, with Peres as Foreign Minister. One day, Peres asked me to meet – a surprising request, since the enmity between us was already well known.

Peres gave a lecture to me on the need to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Since this had been my most important goal in life for many years, it was hard not to laugh. Then he confidently told me about the Oslo negotiations, and asked me to use my influence to convince Rabin.

Peres certainly had his share of the credit for the Oslo agreement, but it was Rabin who made the important decision – and paid with his life.

Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in Knesset, 1995. PHOTO: AFP / Sven Nackstrand

For my inner can I still imagine the killer waiting at the end of the stairs with a loaded gun, letting Peres pass a few inches away while waiting for Rabin, who came down a few minutes later.

The Nobel Committee decided to award the peace prize to Arafat and Rabin. Peres' admirers all over the world made a hell of trouble until the committee added Peres to the list. It would be fair to give the prize to Mahmoud Abbas as well, who had signed with Peres. But the statute only allows three winners, so Abbas received no peace prize.

After Rabin's death, Perez became interim prime minister. Had he announced new elections right away, he would have won in a constituency. But Peres didn't want to win the dead man's popularity, so he waited a few months. During that time, based on bad advice, he waged a war in Lebanon. He ended up losing the election, which was won by Benjamin Netanyahu. (Which, by the way, is the basis for a joke I like to draw: "If a choice can be lost, Perez will lose it. If a choice can't be lost, Perez will lose it anyway.")

In all election campaigns, Peres was cursed and offended. He once complained about "a sea of ​​(obscene) Oriental gestures". It made him even more disliked among the people of Oriental descent.

During this period, Peres also did something wise: He underwent some plastic surgery. His appearance improved significantly.

The final disgrace came when Perez was running for president. The President is a ceremonial figure with no real power, elected by the Knesset. But Peres lost to a zero – a Likud party cleric named Moshe Katzav. That seemed to be the final insult.

But once again it happened amazingly. Moshe Katzav was arrested and convicted of rape. In the ensuing election, Perez was appointed by the Knesset in what appeared to be a fit of collective remorse.

The stone had reached the top of the mountain. With his tireless energy, Sisyphus had won anyway. He who had been a politician all his life and never won an election, was now President – and immediately became very popular.

For several years, Peres got enjoying the people's new love, what had been the goal of his whole life. And then, on September 14 this year, he got hit and fell into a coma.

I was hoping for the longest he could recover. There are few of his caliber in our day. Night to Wednesday, September 28, he died, aged 93.

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