It's not the 'end of an era' - yet

November 24, 2016 23:12

The standard cliché, "the end of an era", trotted out when a major statesman passes away, may seem more appropriate than usual in the case of Shimon Peres, one of the last members of Israel's founding generation. In many ways, however, the Peres era is not over in Israel and will continue for quite a while yet.

On the day after his death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: "This is the first of day of the state of Israel without Shimon Peres". That was very true, but it is much too early to speak of a post-Peres Israel. The results of his policies are still very much with Israel today, and will keep influencing its direction for decades to come. Mr Peres's enduring legacy can be seen in three, related spheres.

In his eulogy at the funeral on Friday, US President Barack Obama said Mr Peres's "skill secured Israel's strategic position". Mr Obama then mentioned the fact that he was the tenth president to meet Mr Peres in the Oval Office and that John F Kennedy had been the first.

Mr Obama did not elaborate, but that meeting with President Kennedy 54 years ago was one of the key moments in which Mr Peres did indeed secure Israel's strategic position. He was in Washington ostensibly to sign Israel's first official arms deal with the US. But the secret purpose of the visit, and the reason the young deputy defence minister met the president, was to deliver an assurance that "Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region".

He laid the twin cornerstones of Israel's defence strategy: a strong military, equipped with the latest US weapon systems, and a nuclear capability that, with America's blessing, would remain "ambiguous".

He laid the base for Israel's security

As Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's plenipotentiary for strategic affairs, Mr Peres built these two pillars of Israel's existence through secret diplomacy in the capitals of Europe and the US, while overcoming stiff opposition from Israelis who argued that the Jewish state could not afford them. Their centrality to the country's secure existence today, and for the foreseeable future, is no longer a matter for debate.

His second lasting achievement was the one least mentioned in the avalanche of obituaries and eulogies.

In Mr Peres's first period as prime minister, between 1984 and 1986, he pushed through the economic plan that halted Israel's spiralling hyper-inflation, which by then had reached an annual rate of over 400 per cent. He was helped by Likud finance minister Yitzhak Modai and a brave team of economists. Ultimately he was the only one who could reach the necessary agreements with the employers, manufacturers and unions on freezing prices and wages.

The economic plan not only brought inflation down, it prepared the ground for Israel's transition from a planned, socialist economy to a neoliberal system. It also paved the way for the private, high-tech sector to assert itself in what would become known as the "start-up nation", tripling its GDP and opening up new avenues of trade and cooperation across the globe.

These two achievements, securing Israel's long-term strategic security and prosperity, also form the base of the third major part of Mr Peres's legacy - one that has yet to be completed.

Mr Peres was convinced that, thanks to his generation's efforts, Israel was secure and prosperous enough to make the concessions to its Palestinian neighbours that would enable the two-state solution. He succeeded in convincing a sceptical Yitzhak Rabin to agree to his plan, but after Mr Rabin was murdered, he failed to convince a majority of Israelis and lost yet another election. His Nobel Peace Prize remained unfulfilled. Oslo floundered, and then Ehud Barak - who was no fan of Mr Peres - failed to convince the Palestinians that this was the best deal they could expect.

Israel in the Peres-era enjoys levels of security and prosperity unimaginable two decades ago. But his legacy remains unsolved. Will there ever be an Israeli leader capable of offering concessions that will not jeopardise what the Peres generation achieved and that a Palestinian leader will accept?

November 24, 2016 23:12

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