There has never not been Shimon Peres. For all of my life, somewhere in the drama of Israel and the world, have appeared the generous, handsome features of Israel’s eternal public figure — big nose, lips, hair, laugh-lines and sharp eyes.
This week, the US Congress voted to begin the process of conferring America’s highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, upon Israel’s president. In July, Mr Peres will step down from his job and finally relinquish his long labours in the service of the Jewish state.
The things that Mr Peres has seen and heard! He is part of that generation, almost entirely gone now, that made us what we are. We can read about it in works of history but Peres has lived it. He is a bridge to the past; a bridge that will soon detach itself, and float away.
Peres was born in 1923, the same year as my late mother. His birthplace was another of those towns on the great, flat land of the Pale, then in Poland and now in Belarus. His father left for Palestine in 1932 and two years later Peres (aged 11) and the family joined him. Peres said his last memory of home was watching his grandfather’s receding figure as the departing train picked up speed.
Eight years later, his grandfather, a rabbi, all of Peres’s extended family and almost all the 1,000 Jews of Vishniev, were dead. As Peres told the Bundestag in Berlin in 2010, the plans for this murder and millions of others had been laid in a villa on a lake just a few miles from where he was speaking.
“The Nazis ordered all the members of the community to congregate in the synagogue. My grandfather marched in front, together with his family, wrapped in the same tallit in which I enveloped myself as a child. The doors were locked from the outside and the wooden structure was torched. And the only remains of the whole community were embers. There were no survivors.”
Peres was a founder of that lost symbol of a lost ideal, a kibbutz. He knew Ben-Gurion. He took his first public job in 1952. He was around for the plotting over Suez. He became a minister in 1970. He knew about the development of the Israeli nuclear programme. He took part in Israel’s great victories of 1967 and 1973, and failed to prevent them from being turned into lost opportunities for peace. Until 1993, when he and Yitzhak Rabin became the force behind Israel’s participation in the Oslo Accords, still the best chance that there had ever been for Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab neighbours to find a modus vivendi. Twenty years ago, Peres was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Peres has been there to see the gradual dissipation through time, terrorism, torpor, and disinclination among the parties to work for a proper settlement. He has witnessed the rise of a right-wing unconvinced of the possibility of a mutual peace, and unwilling to risk anything to bring it about. He has been president during a period of political stasis, but economic dynamism. He has lived through the evolution of at least four different Israels.
During these past few years, as hope turned to frustration, frustration turned to pessimism, and pessimism almost to fatalism, the presence of Peres among the Netanyahus, Liebermans and Bennetts was always a small comfort. As long as he was there to represent Israel and to offer his counsel in moments of crisis, then I felt things could eventually be all right. Shimon would never let anything really mad happen. And he had on his side the legitimacy of his own experience, which none of these others could match.
Perhaps I am too kind. But one thing is certain: Peres’s remarkable career as Jewish public servant supreme is unlikely ever to be repeated.