Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East by Avi Gill (I. B. Tauris, £19,99)
In a long career of more than 60 years, which ended when he left the presidency in 2014, Shimon Peres achieved much, in military affairs and in diplomacy. A disciple of Ben Gurion, he secured arms for Israel in 1948 and before the 1956 Sinai operation, and was involved in the construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. Later, he, with Yitzhak Rabin, was a decisive force in the Oslo Accords, for which he received a Nobel prize. The path from Dimona to Oslo was, as Avi Gil suggests, truly “astonishing”.
Few Israelis have been more popular abroad. In Britain, he received an honorary knighthood. No other Israeli has been so honoured. The only country where he seemed unpopular was Israel, where he was regarded as a devious and untrustworthy intriguer — in Rabin’s words, a “tireless schemer”.
In 1977, Peres led the Alignment to its first electoral defeat. He lost further elections in 1981, 1988 and 1996. In 1974 and 1977, he was defeated for leadership of the Alignment by Rabin. In 1992, he was defeated in the first primary elections of Israel’s Labour Party, and in 2005 for the Labour leadership by Amir Peretz. He was defeated for the presidency in 2000 but elected in 2007 following the resignation in disgrace of Moshe Katsav, found guilty of rape. One might say that the further one went from Israel, the more popular Peres seemed to be.
Avi Gil, Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2001, worked with Peres for nearly three decades. Peres asked him to be his biographer. “Don’t try to talk me into it,” Gil replied. “You won’t come out as well in the book as you might expect. I’ll write the truth”. And he has done so in this well-informed and perceptive book, which reveals a great deal not only about its subject but about the workings of Israeli government. It is more valuable than Peres’s autobiography, of which Gil told Peres that the reader has to get through 400 pages before Peres admits that he made a mistake. “What can I do if I didn’t make mistakes,” Peres replied. Gil, by contrast, has given a real portrait, warts and all.
Peres was, Avi Gil says, a dreamer. Gil warned him against becoming an “astronaut”, the Israeli term for someone whose head is in the clouds. After the Oslo Accords, Peres fantasised that it would lead to a “New Middle East”, with harmony between Israelis and Palestinians and a confederation based on technological advance and free trade. Gaza would become a new Singapore. Netanyahu, by contrast, predicted not peace but more terrorism; and indeed Israel suffered more terrorist deaths within the pre-1967 borders after the Accords than at any time since the first intifada.
Given the harsh realities of the area in which they live, Israelis cannot afford to be dreamers. That is why they have cast their votes for Rabin, Begin, Shamir and Netanyahu rather than Peres. In the Middle East, sadly, high ideals and good intentions are not enough.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College London. His new book ‘Britain and Europe in Troubled Times’ (Yale University Press) will be reviewed in next week’s JC