Life & Culture

Anshel Pfeffer on Shimon Peres

The last true giant of Israel


In any biography of Shimon Peres's life, the opening chapters alone would describe more landmark achievements than most successful politicians' entire careers.

But by the time he was 42, most of his colleagues - and his many rivals - believed he was already washed up. The young man who had played a pivotal role at Israel's birth in procuring arms, tanks and warships for the army of the new state, laid the foundations for its strategic relations with western powers and Israel's own indigenous arms industry and, above all, spearheaded the development of its nuclear capability, found himself in 1966 for the first time on the opposition bench in the Knesset. His own indefatigable efforts had fuelled his meteoric rise through Israel's defence establishment and then its politics. But his closeness to Israel's founding prime minister David Ben- Gurion had been the engine that powered him.

Ben-Gurion had given Peres incredible responsibilities for a man of his age and total lack of experience in international dealings. Peres repaid his mentor with total loyalty. And when, with the old man's influence on the wane, he finally broke with Mapai - the workers' party of Eretz Yisrael which he had led since 1930 - over a toxic spying scandal, Peres joined him in founding Rafi, Israel's workers' list.

But the breakaway party failed to convince the public and Ben-Gurion's group were banished to opposition. Over the next three years, as Israel reached what many at the time saw as the peak of its success in the Six Day War, the man who had done more than anyone else behind the scenes to build its military prowess could only look on from the outside, an outcast.

Without Ben-Gurion's patronage he lacked independent political standing and, it was widely assumed, had no political future.

His swift reemergence as one of Israel's leaders would be the first of Shimon Peres's many comebacks.

Among the generation of Israel's young founders, the first children born on spartan kibbutzim and moshavim who had joined up and fought in the Haganah and Palmach, forerunners of the Israel Defence Force, the bookish European-born Shimon Persky would always be something of an outsider.

Born in August 1923 in Vishneva, then in Poland, today in Belarus, to a middle-class family with rabbinical forbears, Persky was religious as a child but his parents Getzel, a timber merchant, and Sarah, were already drifting towards secular Zionism. Just before he turned eleven, the family emigrated to Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv, where he would begin a lifelong quest to seek acceptance from his "sabra" contemporaries.

While his parents struggled to make ends meet in their small restaurant, Shimon's real introduction to life in the new country and pioneering Zionist society was as a member of Mapai's youth movement, Ha'noar Ha'oved (Working Youth). At fifteen he decided to leave school in Tel Aviv and move to the Ben Shemen youth village, an agricultural boarding school outside the city, where he fulfilled his dream of being just like the khaki work-clothes clad sunburnt sabras he so admired.

Two and half years at Ben Shemen would have put him on a path to life as a kibbutz member, toiling the soil by day and taking guard duty by night; that was certainly the dream of his first girlfriend, Sonia Gelman, whose family lived in Ben Shemen. But he was soon gripped by the allure of politics.

On graduation, with the Second World War raging, many around him joined the British army - including his father, who would become a POW in Europe, and Sonia, who served as a nurse and then a truck driver across the Middle East.

Peres, however, stuck to his ambition of founding a new kibbutz, Alumot, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and increasingly involving himself in Working Youth and Mapai politics.

He believed he was building the new homeland for the Jewish refugees who would come from Europe after the war. But - in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his career - Peres the civilian would be castigated for it, accused of not having served in uniform and remaining far from the front-lines while others were doing the fighting.

Peres's time on the kibbutz however was brief. Shortly after Sonia was discharged in early 1945, they married in Ben Shemen and after a few months together in Alumot moved to a suburb of Tel Aviv.

After fighting his way against a seemingly impregnable rival faction to the secretary-generalship of Working Youth, he attracted the attention of Ben-Gurion, then both leader of Mapai and chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency and moved from farming to politics, becoming the youngest member of a group of aides (including Moshe Dayan and Teddy Kollek) that surrounded Ben- Gurion.

Shimon and Sonia, who had become parents to their first daughter Tzvia (Tziki) returned to Alumot after a year and still hoped to build their lives there, but in May 1947 he was summoned away again for a new mission - which would end up lasting eighteen years.

At 23, Peres was a junior politician without any practical experience in security affairs. But in the months leading up to the United Nations' resolution on November 29, 1947 which ended the British mandate in Palestine and established, on paper, two states, Arab and Jewish, and signalled the beginning of Israel's War of Independence, all efforts were focused on transforming the underground Jewish militias into a regular army.

On the road to Jerusalem, battle raged between neighbouring Jewish and Arab suburbs and villages and on the as yet non-existent borders of the future state. But there was disarray at the Haganah headquarters on Ha'Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, the department tasked with acquiring weapons for the new army.

Despite the nascent IDF eliminating Arab armed gangs and fighting off five invading armies on the ground, its high command was a vipers' nest of warring factions of officers belonging to rival parties, commanders of the pre-independence Palmach fighting force against veterans of the British army and Jewish volunteers from the diaspora. None of them were enamoured with the young bureaucrat who didn't wear a uniform and had never fired a gun in anger. But he had one vital weapon which he yielded without hesitation - the support of Ben-Gurion and the other party elders who held the purse-strings. Facing an international arms embargo, the Haganah had to obtain weapons from a wide variety of sources - unscrupulous dealers selling Second World War planes and tanks as scrap metal, the Czechoslovak government (which was willing to ignore the sanctions with tacit Soviet approval), raids on local depots of the retreating British army and the production of a small indigenous Jewish arms industry.

Peres was put in charge of personnel and funding, coordinating with Haganah representatives around the world and ensuring that valuable resources were used efficiently. His success in this role led to his appointment towards the end of the War, in April 1949, as an assistant to the first commander of the new Israeli navy - in effect his deputy in charge of logistics and acquisitions.

Despite having the de-facto rank of colonel, Peres chose not to formally enlist or wear uniform - he preferred not to subject himself to the military hierarchy. It gave him more independence to deal with the renovation of the Navy's home-base, Haifa Port, and in the important purchase of used frigates from Canada, but it would bolster the future accusations against "Peres who didn't serve".

With the war won, Ben-Gurion awarded Peres, not yet 26 and without any English, to the plum job of deputy head of the Defence Ministry's delegation to the United States. After fifteen years trying his hardest to be more of a Sabra than the Sabras, life in New York re-opened Peres to the world. At nights he worked on his studies at The New School, New York University and then Harvard, immersing himself in the culture, and improving his English. During the day he was involved in the young state's wild arms-procurement schemes throughout the Americas. There was no shortage of aircraft, cannons and tanks left over from the war and local Jewish officers and businessmen were willing to help procure and ship them. But the US was still refusing to sell arms to Israel and ruses such as props for movie-making were concocted for flying out fighter planes.

Back in Israel, Ben-Gurion appointed Peres as director-general of the Defence Ministry, in essence Israel's weapons czar. As the country geared for an inevitable second war with Egypt, procurement plans became much more ambitious. Peres headed to Paris where he set about studying the language and ingratiating himself in government circles. Success came in the shape of new jet fighters and battle tanks, but Ben Gurion had a much more ambitious goal.

Many of the details of how Peres, as Ben-Gurion's plenipotentiary, went about building Israel's nuclear capability are still top-secret, sixty years later. He negotiated the sale of a reactor, for "research" purposes, from the French. The heavy-water and uranium came from other sources (according to BBC's Panorama, Britain was one of the secret suppliers). Young physicists were recruited from the Weizmann Institute and Jewish philanthropists agreed to foot much of the hefty bill. For years the work proceeded under wraps, Israel insisting that the domed building in the Negev Desert was a "textile factory" but the CIA soon enough deduced Israel was building a bomb. Once again, it was Peres who in 1962 worked out an arrangement with the Americans, in an improptu meeting with President Kennedy while he was in Washington negotiating Israel's first official arms deal with the US. "Israel will not be the first to introduce atomic weapons to the region" was the carefully worded commitment he made to the president, and this has remained the basis of Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" policy to this day.

By then Ben-Gurion's power was waning, the rigours of incessant party infighting taking its toll. His resignation in 1963 was a low-point in Peres's influence. He was already a Knesset member and deputy defence minister in his own right but under the new prime minister, Levi Eshkol, he no longer had the same access and authority. Worse, with Ben-Gurion unwilling to retire from politics, Peres felt obliged to follow him when he split with Mapai. The new party, Rafi, failed to capitalise on Ben-Gurion's name and the mid-1960s were a period of frustration as for the first time Peres had to get used to life as a backbencher, shorn of any influence.

On the eve of the Six Day War, Rafi agreed for the purposes of national unity to join the Eshkol government. But it was the popular ex-general Dayan who represented the party in the war cabinet. Peres would finally return to government in 1969 when the Labour Party reunited but it seemed that the next generation of leaders would be the dashing generals - Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon.

Once again it was the Polish immigrant against the Sabras, the grey bureaucrat against the war heroes.

They were destined for the top jobs while Peres would be appointed immigration and then communications minister. But Peres threw himself in to what he knew best, party politics and quiet deals, building up his camp within the party. And when in 1974, Golda Meir and Dayan were forced to resign following the failure of the Yom Kippur War, he ran against Rabin for party leadership. He lost - the first of many election defeats - but in receiving 44 percent of the central committee votes, he proved he was a potential leader and Rabin had little choice but to appoint him defence minister. Not that it did anything to detoxify what had become a poisonous relationship.

Rabin was certain, often with good reason, that Peres was briefing against him. The two were constantly on opposite sides of cabinet debates. One issue with major implications on which they differed was the new settlements being built in the West Bank. While Rabin viewed the religious settlers as dangerous messianists, Peres was an early patron of the Gush Emunim movement, allowing the settlers to set camp in military areas.

Rabin remained vigilant. In July 1976, when Israeli commandos rescued, in a daring raid, hostages from a hijacked Air France airliner who were being held by Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, Rabin took credit for giving the order, despite the operation originally being Peres's initiative and the prime minister hesitating until the last moment.

In 1977, Peres ran once more against Rabin for the leadership and lost again, albeit this time by an even smaller margin. But when Rabin was forced to resign following the revelation that his wife had an illegal foreign bank account, Peres finally assumed leadership of the party he had worked for since his teens.

However, after Labour's eight consecutive election wins, holding power for nearly three decades, it was time for a change. The defeat was Peres's as leader. But it wasn't about Peres. The Israeli public simply felt that the old establishment was too corrupt and too out of touch and that it was finally time to give Menachem Begin's Likud a chance.

Once again Peres was banished to the wilderness of opposition and this time he had to contend with his party's anger over losing power. To make things worse, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, it was the right-wing Begin who landed the prize of a peace agreement with Israel's largest Arab neighbour.

By then Peres himself was undergoing a political transformation. For decades he had been a hawk, a leader of the Ben-Gurionist "activist" wing of the Labour movement. But in opposition to Likud, which had signed a peace treaty with Egypt but was continuing to build in the West Bank and opposing any concessions there, he evolved in to a dove, convinced that having provided strategic security in building Israel's military prowess, now he was the one to deliver comprehensive peace.

But first he had to get back in to power.

1981 brought another humiliating election defeat to Likud but in 1984 he finally managed to squeeze a stalemate, meaning Labour would share power in a national unity government. However, in cabinet he had to contend not only with Rabin, elevated to the defence ministry, but his new partner, hardliner Yitzhak Shamir.

Peres was prime minister for the first two years of the government's term. But in that period, he was mainly busy extricating Israeli troops from the mud of the first Lebanon war and the national economy from hyper-inflation.

In 1986, after swapping jobs with Shamir, he became foreign minister and was free to pursue peace initiatives. But he couldn't sign off on them and when he returned from a meeting in London with Jordan's King Hussein, holding the draft of an agreement, Shamir rejected the terms.

Peres lasted fifteen years as Labour's leader, during which he was branded "the loser" and "the prime minister of the polls". He lost again to Shamir in 1988 and finally in 1992 the party ditched him for Rabin. He was back again as number two to his old rival, this time as foreign minister. But by now Labour's two old men had learned from their past mistakes and made a far better job of cooperating, albeit with the occasional row.

Peres' ambitious deputy, Yossi Beilin, had sent two unofficial messengers to meet with Palestinians leaders and try to reach a peace agreement. Rabin was initially sceptical but allowed Beilin, who had once been called "Peres's poodle" to proceed, so long as he committed to nothing. The talks in faraway Norway led to the Oslo Accords and an agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's terrorist chief Yasser Arafat on an end to violence, recognition of Israel and the establishment of a quasi-state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Peres was ecstatic. In interviews he promised Israelis a "new Middle East" and within months Jordan joined in and signed its own peace treaty with Israel. For once, Rabin was generous in sharing the credit as the two stood side-by-side on the White House lawn and then jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat.

Peres and Rabin would never be friends but for the first time they were partners - although it was not to last long as Arafat would not hold up his side of the deal in clamping down on Palestinian terrorism and buses were blown up by suicide-bombers in Israel's cities.

On November 4th 1995, Peres left a peace rally he had attended with Rabin, not noticing a young man lurking behind the parked cars. Rabin left a few minutes later and was shot three times. That night, as Rabin's body lay in the morgue, Peres assumed the prime ministership again, determined to complete the next stages of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But to do that he knew he needed to become prime minister in his own right.

As the campaign began, he was leading Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu by 20 points. The public felt sympathy for the old leader and many blamed Netanyahu for his part in creating the toxic public atmosphere that preceded the assassination. But as the weeks dragged on, a tired and dispirited Peres seemed to sag in the face of the devastatingly effective election campaign of a candidate over a quarter of a century younger than him. The polls still had Peres ahead as Israelis voted, but polls had always been kind to him: reality much less.

As if losing to Netanyahu was not humiliating enough, along came new Labour leader Ehud Barak to win the 1999 election, proving, it seemed, that Peres was simply unelectable. To make things worse, a year later when he tried to run for the ceremonial role of president, he lost to the opposition's candidate, Moshe Katzav, in a secret Knesset ballot.

There was something almost pathetic about the way that Peres, nearing his eighties, tried to cling to his last shreds of power. Accepting whatever ministerial briefs were on offer, no matter how insignificant, he tried again to be elected Labour leader in 2005, only to be defeated by Amir Peretz. And yet he couldn't keep away, no matter how many times he lost. In 2007, when Katzav was forced to resign over allegations of rape, Peres prepared to run once again for the presidency. But Sonia told him she would not join him in Jerusalem. And yet still he could not let go. He ran this, his last race, alone - and this time he won, becoming Israel's ninth president on June 13, 2007.

In January 2011, Sonia passed away. They had spent the last years of their lives apart. Sonia could not reconcile herself with Shimon continuing his public life, while all she craved was some peace and privacy. She requested in her will to be buried in the Ben Shemen cemetery, near the spot where they first courted.

The last act in Peres's political career was significant for two things. In public, he kept totally out of politics. He supported the returning prime minister, Netanyahu, despite his deep reservations over his policies. In return, for the first time in his life, Peres became a unifying figure, finally loved in Israel as he was respected abroad.

In private however, he secretly backed the group of military and intelligence chiefs who opposed Netanyahu's plans to bomb Iran's nuclear installations, although for the moment this remains another secret chapter in his life which may never be fully told.

Even after his seven years of the presidency he continued to keep up a brisk pace, lecturing around the world and in Israel, leading his Peres Peace Centre, supporting various technological and social initiatives.

A few months before he passed away, he told a former aide that "when the Angel of Death comes for a surprise visit and discovers you have more experience than unfulfilled dreams, it's over. And anyway, optimists and pessimists die at the same age, so why not enjoy life as an optimist?"

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