The recent death of Shimon Peres is notable in several respects that are additional to his salient, contradictory, and ambiguous legacy, which may help explain why there has been such an effort to clarify how best to remember the man. Basically, the question posed is whether to celebrate Peres’ death as that of a man dedicated to peace and reconciliation or to portray him as a wily opportunist, a skillful image-maker, and in the end, a harsh Zionist and ambitious Israeli leader. My contention is that the way Peres is being perceived and presented at the time of his death serves as a litmus test of how those on opposite sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide experienced Peres and beyond this, how various prominent personalities for their own purposes position themselves by either championing the well orchestrated ‘Peres myth’ or seeking to depict the ‘Peres reality.’ This rich obscurity of perceptual interpretation is part of what led the death of Shimon Peres to be taken so much more seriously than that of Ariel Sharon or Moshe Dayan, who were both much more instrumental figures in the history of the Zionist project and the evolution of the state of Israel. As Shakespeare taught us, especially in Julius Caesar, it is the quality of opaqueness that creates heightened dramatic tension in reaction to an historically significant death.
These divergent assessments of the life of Shimon Peres can be roughly divided into three categories, although there are overlaps and variations within each. What can we learn from these divergences? (1) the rich, famous, and politically powerful in the West who have been bewitched by Peres’s formidable charms; (2) the rich, famous, and politically influential who know better the moral and complexity of Peres, but put on blinders while walking the path of politically correctness, which overlooks, or at least minimizes, his blemishes; (3) the marginalized, often embittered, whose self-appointed mission it is to be witnesses to what is deemed the truth behind the myth, and especially those on the Palestinian side of the fence.
Peres is unique among those recently active in Israel as his long life spans the entire Zionist experience, but more than longevity is the credibility associated with the claim that Peres should be set apart from other Israeli politicians as someone genuinely dedicated to establishing peaceful relations with the Palestinians via the realization of the two-state solution, and achieving more generally, good relations with the wider Arab world. Peres’ own presentation of self along these lines, especially in his latter years during which he served as President of Israel, provided international personalities with an excellent opportunity to exhibit the quality of attachment not only to the man, but to Israel as a country and Zionism as a movement. Allowing Peres’ idealist persona to epitomize the true nature of Israel created the political space needed to affirm contemporary Israel without being forced to admit that Israel as a political player was behaving in a manner that defied law and morality.
As already suggested, those praising Peres without any reservations fall into two of the categories set forth above. There are those like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who seem to believe that Peres is truly a heroic embodiment of everything they hoped Israel would become, and to some extent is; in effect, the embodiment of the better angels of the Israeli experience. As well, displaying unreserved admiration and affection for Peres present Western leaders with a subtle opportunity to express indirectly their displeasure with Netanyahu and their concerns about the recent drift of Israeli diplomacy in the direction of a de facto foreclosure of Palestinian aspirations and rights.
Of course, such politicians are also eager to be seen at the same time as unconditionally pro-Israeli. Obama made this abundantly clear in his fawning and demeaning farewell meeting with Netanyahu at the UN, which Israel reciprocated by a provocative approval of a controversial settlement expansion, basically one more slap in Obama’s face.
Clinton, as well, seems understandably eager to make sure that no daylight appears between his solidarity with Israel and that of his presidential candidate spouse who has topped all American politicians, which says a lot, by tightening her embrace of everything Netanyahu’s Israel currently hopes for in Washington, including even an explicit commitment to join the fight against BDS. By so doing, Hilary Clinton has committed her presidency to favor what appear to be unconstitutional encroachments on freedom of expression that should be an occasion to vent public outrage, but has so far survived the gaze of the gatekeepers without eliciting the slightest critical comments from her opponents and even the media.
In the second category of fulsome praise for the departed Peres a variety of private motives is evident. There are those self-important braggarts like Tom Friedman, who clearly knows all about the complexity of the Peres story, but pretends to be gazing wide eyed at the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky as he describes his supposedly idyllic friendship with Peres over a period of 35 years. Friedman is definitely informed and intelligent enough not to be taken in by the Peres myth, and despite his signature demeanor of fearless candor, his views tend to be in total alignment with the liberal pro-Jewish mainstream, whether the topic is assessing Peres’s life or for that matter, assessing America’s global role or the current race for the presidency. He is as anti-Trump and as he is pro-Peres, exhibiting his mentoring stature as the guru of centrist political correctness, which is slightly disguised to the unwary by his brash tone that purports to be telling it like it is even when it isn’t.
And then in this same category, strange bedfellows to be sure, are quasi-collaborationist Palestinian leaders, most notably, Mahmoud Abbas who showed up in Jerusalem at the Peres funeral, described in the media as a rare visit to Israel, and seized the opportunity of Peres’ death to demonstrate that the Palestinian leadership is not hostile to Israeli leaders who the world recognizes as committed to peace based on the two-state solution. Abbas was presumably seeking, as well, to enhance his image as a reasonable, moderate, and trustworthy partner in the search for peace, which of course understandably infuriated not only Hamas but all those Palestinians who know better, given the daily ordeal that Palestinians are enduring as a result of policies that Peres never opposed, and in some instances, as with settlements and occupation, helped to establish. The portrayal of Peres by the respected Israeli historian, Tom Segev can hardly be news to Abbas who has endured first hand the long Palestinian ordeal: “Mr. Peres would certainly liked to enter history as a peacemaker, but that’s not how he should be remembered: indeed his greatest contributions were to Israel’s military might and victories.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who has had important positions with the PLO for many years, and has long worked for a real peace in a spirit of dedication, but without succumbing to the deceptions surrounding the Oslo diplomacy. Ashrawi has managed to keep her eyes open to the reality of Palestinian suffering, making her inevitably more critical of Peres and suspicious of those who would whitewash is life story. She writes of Peres after his death, as follows: “Palestinians’ faith in Mr. Peres had been tested before. Not forgotten by Palestinians and others in the region is the role that he played arming the Israeli forces that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948; the regional nuclear arms race he incited by initiating Israel’s secret atomic weapons program in the 1950s and ’60s; his responsibility for establishing some of the first Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the ’70s; his public discourse as a minister in Likud-led coalitions, justifying Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and extremist ideology; and his final role in Israeli politics as president, serving as a fig leaf for the radically pro-settler government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” [NY Times (international edition, Oct 3, 2016)]
Above all, this overly elaborate observance of Peres’ death serves as an informal litmus test useful for determining degrees of devotion to Israel and its policies without bothering to weigh in the balance the country’s obligations under international law or the cruel reality being imposed on the Palestinian people year after year. Those who praise Peres unreservedly are deemed trustworthy within the Beltway, scoring high marks from AIPAC, and those who point to his shortcomings or to policies that went awry are viewed as unredeemably hostile to Israel. They are correctly assumed to be critics of the Special Relationship and of the over the top flows of U.S. military assistance (at least $3.8 billion over the next ten years), or worse, identified as sympathizers with the Palestinian struggle. This description fits such respected and influential critics of the Peres myth as Robert Fisk (British journalist), Uri Avnery (Israeli peace activist, former Knesset member), Gideon Levy (Israeli journalist), and Ilan Pappé (noted Israeli revisionist historian living in Britain).
In my view only those who see the dark sides of Shimon Peres are to be trusted, although it is excusable to be an innocent devotee in the manner of Obama. In this regard the knowledgeable liberal enthusiast is the least acceptable of the three categories because of the willful deception involved in painting a picture of Peres that is known to feed a misleading myth that is itself part of the Israeli hasbara manipulating international public awareness of the Palestinian ordeal, and thus encouraging a false public belief that the leadership in Israel, even the Netanyahu crowd, is sincere in their off again on again advocacy of a two-state solution or of the establishment of a truly independent Palestinian state. Remember that even Netanyahu joined the chorus at the funeral by treating Peres with a moral deference that should be reserved for the gods.
There is another aspect of what was signified by the ardent eulogies delivered by Western leaders at the Peres funeral that was dramatically underlined by the renowned Israeli columnist, Gideon Levy, yet entirely overlooked in the extensive commentary: “Anti-Semitism died on Friday — or at least, its use as an excuse by Israel. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5777, the world proved that while anti-Semitism remains in certain limited circles, it can no longer frame most of the world’s governments. Also, hatred of Israel is not what it is said to be, or what Israel says it is.” Levy’s observation is timely and relevant. It goes beyond an expression of the view that Peres was partly lauded because he was ‘not Netanyahu.’ Far deeper is Levy’s understanding that the Peres funeral gave the West an opportunity to express their affection and admiration for a prominent Jew being celebrated because he fashioned for himself and others the image of a ‘man of peace.’ Independent of whether or not this is a true appreciation, it allows a distinction to be sharply drawn between rejecting Jews as a people and criticizing Israel and its leaders for their practices and policies. In effect, if Israel were to embody the supposed worldview of Peres, and bring peace, then Israel would be welcomed into the community of states without any resistance arising from the Jewish identity of its majority population.
We in the United States are particularly grateful to Gideon Levy for making this point so clearly. We are faced with the opposite syndrome. Namely, criticisms of Israel’s policies and practices with respect to the Palestinian people are being deliberately treated as ‘hate speech’ and worse, as a new virulent form of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Such attacks have been recently mounted with hurtful fury against pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of the BDS Campaign.
May Shimon Peres rest in peace, and may the Palestinian people through their representatives intensify their struggle to achieve a real peace with Israel based on law, justice, and mutual empathy.