Responses to Interview Questions on Shimon Peres
(from Rodrigo Craveiro of Correio Braziliense, Brasilia)
[Prefatory Note: the text that follows is derived from an interview yesterday with an important Brazilian newspaper. I have retained the questions posed by the journalist, but expanded and reframed my responses. The death of Shimon Peres is the last surviving member of Israel’s founding figures, and in many ways a fascinating political personality, generating wildly contradictory appraisals. My own experience of the man was direct, although rather superficial, but it did give me greater confidence to trust my reservations about his impact and influence, which collides with the adulation that he has inspired among American liberals, in particular.]
- 1) What is the main legacy of president Shimon Peres, in your point of view?
Shimon Peres leaves behind a legacy of a long public life of commitment to making Israel a success story, economically, politically, diplomatically, and even psychologically. He is being celebrated around the world for his intelligence, perseverance, and in recent decades for his public advocacy of a realistic peace with the Palestinians. I believe he lived an impressive and significant life, but one that was also flawed in many ways. He does not deserve, in my opinion, the unconditional admiration he is receiving, especially from the high and mighty in Europe and North America. Underneath his idealistic rhetoric was a tough-minded and mainstream commitment to Zionist goals coupled with an expectation that the Palestinians, if sensible, would submit graciously to this reality, and if not, deservedly suffer the consequences of abuse and harm. He was never, contrary to his image, a supporter of an idealistic peace based on recognizing the equality of the Palestinian people, acknowledging the wrongs of the nakba and the Palestinian ordeal that followed, and in creating a sustainable peace that included realizing Palestinian rights as defined by international law.
* 2) Do you believe Peres was ever close to obtaining a definitive peace deal with Palestinians? What did it get wrong?
In my view, Peres never even wanted to reach a sustainable peace agreement with the Palestinians, but he fooled many people, including the committee in Oslo that selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unyielding in his refusal to grant Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 any right of return. He early favored, in fact helped initiate, and never really confronted the settlement movement as it encroached upon the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He consistently pretended to be more peace-oriented than he was except when it served his purposes to seem war-like. I share the assessment made by Marc H. Ellis, the highly respected and influential dissident Jewish thinker, that aside from the exaggerated praise he is receiving, Peres will be more accurately remembered, especially by Palestinians, as an enabler of “a narrative of Jewish innocence and redemption that was always much more sinister from the beginning.” When Peres’ political ambitions made it opportune for him to be militarist, he had little difficulty putting ‘peace’ to one side and embarking on hawkish policies of destructive fury such as the infamous attack on Qana (Lebanon) in April 1996, apparently with the design of improving his electoral prospects, which in any event turned out badly. What seems generally accurate is the view that Peres believed the Israel would evolve in a more secure and tranquil manner if it achieved some kind of peace with Palestine, thereby the conflict to a negotiated end. Yet the peace that Peres favored was always filtered through a distorting Zionist optic, which meant that it was neither fair nor balanced, and was unlikely to last even if some such arrangement were to be swallowed in despair at some point by Palestinian leaders. To date, despite many attempted entrapments, the Palestinians have avoided political surrender beneath such banners of ‘false peace’ that have adorned the diplomatic stage from time to time. The Oslo diplomacy came close to achieving a diplomatic seduction, yet its ‘peace process’ while helpful for Israel’s expansionist designs never was able to deliver, as it promised, an end to the conflict in a form that met Israel’s unspoken priorities for territorial gains, a legitimated Jewish state, and a permanently subordinated Palestinian existence.
- 3) Have you ever had chance of talking directly with him? If yes, what could you tell us on his personality?
I had small dinners with Peres on two separate occasions, and attended a couple of larger events where he was the guest of honor. Both of these dinners took place in New York City more than twenty years ago. I was impressed by Peres’ intelligence and social skills, but also by his arrogant and insensitive Israeli nationalism and his unanticipated interest at the time in promoting a strategic alignment with US global and regional policies in the Middle East, which he expressed in think tank militarist terms when he regarded himself as among friends. I remember, in particular, his advocacy, then way ahead of unfolding events, of the feasibility of achieving close strategic partnerships among Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. His premise, which has proved correct, was that these three political actors shared common interests in regional security and the political established order that would take precedence over supposedly antagonistic ideological goals and ethical values. Peres believed that these countries were natural allies bound by mutual interests, an outlook that exhibited his geopolitically driven political mentality. Peres also seemed always to make it clear in private settings that he was not seen as naïve, and frequently made the point that the Middle East was not Scandinavia. I heard him speak in 1993 one time at Princeton shortly after the famed handshake on the White House lawn between Rabin and Arafat. On that occasion he made it clear that the ‘Palestinians’ were ‘Arabs,’ and accordingly it would be appropriate for the 22 Arab countries to absorb the Palestinian refugees rather than expect this burden to fall on Israel’s shoulders. Beyond this, he indicated his hopes for normalization in the Middle East that would benefit both Israel and the Arab countries, which he visualized by a metaphor I found racist at the time: Israel would supply the brains, while the Arab would supply the brawn, and the combination would be a productive regional body politic.
* 4) Do you think Shimon Peres was one of the most dedicated Israeli leaders to achieving a two state solution? Why?
I am not sure about the true nature of Peres’ commitment to a two state solution, although I felt his public offerings were often manipulative toward the Palestinians and were put forward in a disarming manner as if responsive to reasonable Palestinian expectations. Underneath the visionary rhetoric, Peres acted as if Israel’s diplomatic muscle gave it the opportunity to offer the Palestinians a constrained state that would end the conflict while leaving Israel with indirect and no longer contested control of a disproportionate share of historic Palestine. As is typical for political realists, Peres exaggerated the capacity of military might to prevail over political resolve. He has been so far wrong about attaining Israel’s goal of a controlled peace ever being achievable, underestimating Palestinian nationalism and its insistence that peace be based on the equality of the two peoples. Part of why Peres was so appreciated internationally is that his language and vision tended to be outwardly humanistic, and thus contrasted with the far blunter approaches associated with many recent politicians in Israel, and most notably with Bibi Netanyahu. Only by such a comparison can Peres be genuinely considered as ‘a man of peace.’ But this image, however much polished, does not capture the essence of this complicated, contradictory, and talented political personality. As suggested earlier, Peres is probably best understood as a geopolitical realist who believed in maximizing Israeli military power, and not only for defensive purposes, but to give the country the capacity to impose its will on the outcome of the conflict, and to exert unchallenged influence over the entire region. It should not be forgotten that Peres initially became prominent decades ago as a leading overseas procurer of weapons for Israel and later as the political entrepreneur of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which included persuading France to give assistance that violated its commitments as a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty. As well, on occasion, for the sake of his political ambitions when in or aspiring to high office, Peres supported and was responsible for very aggressive military retaliatory strikes against Palestinian communities that caused heavy casualties among innocent civilians.
Peres was always very useful for the West: an ally and someone who presented a hopeful, moderate, and peace-oriented outer look that was presented as exhibiting the soul of Israel, a moral energy trying forever to free the country from the birth pains of its violent emergence. The Economist unintentionally illustrated Peres’ witty cynicism that also came across in personal encounters: “There are two things that cannot be made without closing your eyes, love and peace. If you try to make them with open eyes, you won’t get anywhere.” The august magazine offered this to show off Peres’ wisdom, but I take it as summarizing his deeply suspect view of real peace, or for that matter, of real love.
It is not surprising, yet still symbolically disappointing, that President Barack Obama unreservingly exalts Shimon Peres, and is making the symbolic pilgrimage to Israel to take part in the funeral service honoring his life. If Peres’actual political impact is taken into account, his words of excessive tribute to Peres should haunt Obama if he were exposed to the other side of Peres, the so-called ‘father of the settlement movement,’ ‘the butcher of Qana,’ ‘the man behind Israeli nuclear weapons’: “A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever. Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves – to the very end of our time on Earth and to the legacy that we leave to others.”
As with Obama’s recent disturbingly positive public statement of farewell to Netanyahu at the UN, the departing president seems overly eager to create a final, formal impression of unconditional solidarity with Israel, an attitude reinforced in these instances by showing only the most nominal concern for the ongoing Palestinian ordeal. One can only wonder what became of the outlook contained in Obama’s much heralded 2009 speech in Cairo that viewed Israel/Palestine in a more balanced way and promised to turn a new page in relations between the United States and the Middle East. It does not require a historian to remind ourselves that Israel wasted little time in mobilizing its lobbying forces to pour scorn on such a revisioning of policy inducing Obama to back down in an awkward and politically costly manner. Perhaps, this ‘reset’ can be justified as a practical move by Obama in the interest of governing, but why now when the tides of political pressure have relented and after so much experience of Netanyahu, does Obama want to be regarded more than ever as Israel’s staunch friend rather than as someone who was so often obstructed by the Israeli leadership?
Such a posture is distressing, in part, because it overlooks the outrageous and undisguised effort by Netanyahu to favor Romney for president in the 2012 American elections and his later belligerent circumvention of White House protocol by speaking directly to the U.S. Congress to register intense opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. If Obama behaves in this craven way, what might we expect from a Clinton presidency? Clinton has already committed her likely forthcoming administration to the absurd goal of raising even higher the level of friendship and solidarity between the two countries higher than it was during the Obama years. She has provided tangible evidence that this pledge is genuine by making gratuitous and unacceptable avowals of intense opposition to the BDS Campaign, and hence of subordinating the constitutional rights of American citizens to the whims of pro-Israeli extremists.