Some 18 years ago, as part of a TV production following the stages of Shimon Peres’s life, he suggested that I join him on a trip to his home town of Vishnyeva, in Belarus. We reached a rural house, made of wood, rather small, with chickens running around the yard. Despite the warnings of the local people, who cautioned against drinking the well water – “Chernobyl contaminated the earth,” they said – Peres let the chain run through his fingers and lowered the bucket into the well, raised it, filled a tin cup, and then drank ardently from the water of his youth.
Later he said that he had been raised religious and that he had once broken his father’s radio because he’d used it on Shabbat. I asked him if his father had ever hit him. “No one ever hit me,” he said, somewhat proudly. “No one?” I asked. “You never fought with kids at school, never got beaten up during a game?”
“Not once. I was never hit by anyone and I never hit anyone.”
I thought then: he, who as a public servant was beaten and assaulted relentlessly – in the media, in the Knesset, and in the public spaces of Israeli discourse – was never seared with that primary experience that nearly every child knows. I thought that could be one of the many possible keys to his essence, to his way about the world: the touch of someone who, despite his passionate immersion in politics, always carried the faint scar of exclusion, of one who does not belong and is not fully accepted.
“It is the end of an era,” the eulogisers say, including those on the right who tormented him and ridiculed his “hallucinations of peace”. But the Peres era, and the era of his vision, ended years ago, in the mid-90s, when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, and actually beforehand, when the Oslo accords keeled over.
Those at the rightwing rallies then called him and Rabin “the criminals of Oslo”, and blamed them for the waves of terror that buried a thousand Israelis once the agreement collapsed. As though the Palestinians, had the agreement never been signed, might have continued living submissively and in perfect passivity under Israeli occupation for all eternity.
The hatred for Peres at the time may have been due in part to the fact that he, with the crispness of his oratory, with that rare ability he had to stoke hope, to open a window to the future, made the suspicious, war-scarred Israelis believe, for a short time, and completely against their instincts, that there is an actual chance for a better future, a future of peace. As though our willingness to be seduced into Peres’s vision of a new Middle East was, Israelis felt, a betrayal of our war-torn and horror-ridden fate, which we carry in our flesh throughout our tragic history. And when the Oslo accords crumbled, when the hope that we had momentarily allowed ourselves to cultivate was dashed, he was not forgiven.
Peres’s entire being stood facing the future. In a country that is being sucked ever deeper into a mythological, religious and tribal narrative, he turned towards the universal, towards science, rationality and the democracy of open information. He cast himself as an anchor on the seabed of the future, the distant, invisible, imagined, utopian and optimistic future, and began tugging himself towards it.
Here’s a small example of the Peres mindset: “I approached Putin,” he told me not too long ago, when he was nearly 90, “and I told him this: in a few years Egypt is going to lose its rights to the Nile. The historic agreement with Britain and France will expire. Ethiopia is already demanding water, and that could spark war. Let’s go both of us together to Morsi [then the Egyptian president] and tell him: ‘we, Israel, will give you three Niles! We have the knowledge and the capacity to double Egypt’s water supply!’
“Morsi,” Peres added, “won’t listen to me; but to you, Putin, he’ll listen. But we won’t come to him as part of an initiative of states, states are already passé, we’ll come through companies, through corporations, they’re the ones who run the world today …”
This is how he thought and acted throughout his life: the present – the disheartening, feeble, shoal of now – was just a momentary obstacle to which one could not surrender. Giving up was never an option. Netanyahu’s inertia vis-à-vis negotiations with the Palestinians drove him out of his mind; it was in full opposition to his genetic code, which drove him unflaggingly forward, in bursts of creativity, fruitfulness and initiative. Sometimes when I spoke with him I felt the extent of his horror – normally kept behind the curtain of his boundless optimism – at the nationalism and fanaticism that despair has spawned in Israel. He knew – and never accepted – that a disastrous reality was being built, for both peoples, and that he, Peres, was in the camp of the vanquished.
He did great and magnificent things, contributing immensely to the state of Israel in the spheres of security, economy and science. But in what mattered to him most, he failed: he was not able to deliver Israel into a state of peace with its neighbours. It always seemed that at the decisive moment, when one more bold and determined step was necessary – he did not dare enough, did not act with the resolve he had promised.
He was a man of contradictions and upheavals: a child who dreamed of becoming “a shepherd and a poet of the stars” became the leader of a nation that lived most of its life in war and bloodshed. A man of culture with a wide intellect and deeply embedded humanist values, whose conscience was haunted by the deaths, in 1996, of 100 Palestinian refugees killed by an Israeli artillery shell on the Lebanese village of Kafr Kana. A politician who for years refused the resolution of conflict through the establishment of a Palestinian state and supported the settlement enterprise, then became a statesman who, more than anyone else, symbolised the willingness for compromise with the Palestinians and the striving for peace with them. Unbridled and manipulative in his dealings with his opponents, but someone who possessed – and you couldn’t help but notice it – a true greatness.
The time to try to unpack his full character will yet come. Perhaps the characteristics that made him such a fascinating and complex man deterred the majority of Israelis from electing him as their political leader. Rabin, with whom he jousted for decades, was – for the majority of Peres’s life – more beloved by Israelis, more understood, more “decoded.” Peres’s complex personality is what prevented him from winning elections and attaining that which many less talented politicians received with ease – the adoration of the masses.
For Peres was, from the very start of his political life, a man who was important but hardly beloved. He was not unvarnished, not one of the guys, not someone who knew how to talk to Israelis heart to heart, or rather – from the heart to the gut. That is why his late years in the president’s office were so good to him. Then, for the first time, he received – so he felt – the love of a majority of Israelis, the feeling that at last he had found a place in the hearts of those who always saw him as a dreamer and, occasionally, a traitor.
I’ll remember him like this: one evening I called him at the president’s residence to rope him into a mission I thought he’d support. “Why over the phone?” he asked. “Are you free? Come to dinner.”
The president’s residence was partially dark and Peres looked lonesome and old among the young security guards. When I walked in he sat up and sparked his eyes back to life. He threw himself into a monologue about the weakness of governments today, their inability to solve essential problems, from security to terror to finance. Then he started to talk about the Peres Centre for Peace’s new scientific project which was the next thing in the world of medicine.
Soon, he said, “We’ll start getting our meds in fruit! Everything will be in there, from anti-ageing pills to headache medications!” And continued on to talk about nanotechnology (a personal favourite) and the future battlefields which will include remote-controlled electronic “wasps”, and about “the greatest foe of democracy in the Arab world – husbands, who try to deny their wives equality.” And the five books he was reading simultaneously, one of which was Fifty Shades of Grey: “I read it and it bored me. No creativity, no real erotica.”
The meal itself was modest, like those from his kibbutz days: an omelette with mushrooms, a thinly diced salad with cheese, a plate of cottage cheese, caraway-studded bread, and also – a glass of red wine. He spoke and laughed. He told the story of the historic meeting – which he attended – between Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle. I watched him as he spoke: during the years that I had the privilege of knowing him, I liked him and admired him a lot. His internal contradictions made him in my eyes an endearing and stirring individual. I thought: this man has seen nearly a century pass and has left his mark upon it. Few are able to live such a full and fascinating life. I told him as much. He waved his hand dismissively: “I’m just getting started,” he laughed. And for a moment he seemed happy, as though he believed his own words.
David Grossman is the author of Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo. His novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar will be published in 2016. Translated from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg.