Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday at 93, was laid to rest as an Israeli prince of peace. Leaders from around the world came to Jerusalem to pay their respects to Israel’s eldest statesman, a defense minister, prime minister, president and more, who ended his long life as a symbol of his country’s quest for reconciliation with the Palestinians.
Mr. Peres certainly would have 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. Despite his involvement in the Oslo peace process, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, along with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never his primary work.
A close associate and deeply devoted admirer of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, Mr. Peres shared his mentor’s conviction that there could be no real peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, at least not for several generations. As Ben-Gurion’s deputy minister of defense, Mr. Peres also held part of the responsibility for the harsh and often arbitrary restrictions that the military imposed on the county’s Arab citizens, including extensive land confiscations.
He was crucial to the development of Israel’s military industry, including some of its most sophisticated weaponry. In the early 1950s, just a few years after Israel declared independence, he concluded that Israel must develop its own nuclear option. He established secret contacts with France to obtain nuclear technology. The nuclear reactor that now sits near the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert is largely thanks to these efforts.
On matters military and diplomatic alike, Mr. Peres was courageous and imaginative. He was willing to consider and often to risk almost all political, diplomatic and military options, regardless of how fantastic and unrealistic they might be. In 1967, he sought to avoid the Six Day War, anticipating heavy losses for the Israeli army. He reportedly suggested that instead of going to war, Israel should detonate a powerful and extremely noisy device that would scare Egypt, Jordan and Syria out of their plan to attack Israel. He found no support for this scheme, but had it worked it might have significantly altered the events of the last 50 years — avoiding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
But over the course of his political career, Mr. Peres participated in the oppression of the Palestinians who have been living for nearly half a century under Israeli occupation. In 1975, when he was defense minister, Mr. Peres granted permission to one of the first groups of Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank. Later, he supported the establishment of several other settlements, laying the first obstacles to the so-called two-state solution.
Over the years, Mr. Peres sent diplomatic feelers to Arab leaders, primarily King Hussein of Jordan, who had been talking secretly with Israeli leaders for decades. In an abortive agreement with the king, Mr. Peres consented in 1987 to end the occupation of the West Bank and put it under Jordanian rule. Later, Jordan and Israel concluded an official peace agreement, while Mr. Peres was foreign minister. The Palestinian issue remained unresolved. And in 1993, as foreign minister, Mr. Peres signed in Oslo the agreement that led to an exuberant ceremony on the White House lawn and gained Mr. Peres the joint Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo faded away; the Palestinian issue remains unresolved.
The rest of the world hailed the Oslo agreement as proof that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved. But within Israel it was, and still is, controversial. The right called Mr. Peres a defeatist for ceding some control of the West Bank, the left called him an expansionist because the agreement didn’t end the occupation. Both sides were not entirely wrong. In fact, Mr. Peres was trying to please everyone, settlers and peace activists alike. That was the story line of his political life.
Even as a powerful politician, Mr. Peres remained an outsider. He was born in Poland as Shimon Persky. He arrived in Palestine at age 11 and immediately set out on a long and painful struggle to become a “New Hebrew,” which the Zionist ideology sought to create in contrast to the diaspora Jew: strong, masculine, upright, courageous and productive. Mr. Peres lived for a while on a kibbutz. He assumed a Hebrew name but he was never able to get rid of his Yiddish accent. And unlike Mr. Rabin and other locally born members of the elite, he did not fight in the 1948 war for independence, something for which veterans looked down on him.
Thus there was something pathetic about Mr. Peres’s attempt to transform himself into “a real Israeli.” For most of his life, he had to endure widespread hatred from his people, and, even worse, mockery. Throughout his career he gave ample reason to associate him with petty party politics and sleazy intrigue. But in reality he was motivated not by a lust for power or by greed, but by an outsider’s desperate quest for his people’s love.
In 2005, Mr. Peres left the Labor Party, which had been his political home, and joined a new party headed by Ariel Sharon, a former general and the epitome of that admirable “New Jew.” The deal brought Mr. Peres the presidency and, finally, the love of almost all Jewish Israelis. It amounted to a biographical miracle. No other Israeli leader had attained that much affection since the assassination of Mr. Rabin.
As president, Mr. Peres was recast as an optimistic father figure, an elder statesman who represented a country devoted to peace and justice. It helped, of course, that the presidency is largely a ceremonial post and Mr. Peres no longer constituted a political threat to anybody. And because he was viewed as a champion of peace, few Israelis resented his objection to proposals to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, preferring negotiations.
It was ironic that Mr. Peres gained in popularity at a time when Israel was losing many of its friends in the world. He remains perhaps the last Israeli many in the rest of the world can still admire as they once admired his country. He died at a time of apparent transition. Not long from now, Israel may once again have to face crucial and painful decisions regarding its future as a Jewish and democratic country. These decisions will require a truly great leader, someone who, unlike Mr. Peres, demands his people’s compliance, not their love.
Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, is the author, most recently, of Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends. He is writing a biography of David Ben-Gurion.