The death of Shimon Peres is a loss to Israel, the global Jewish community and the world at large. Gone is a living link to the history behind the miracles that led to the founding, survival and thriving of the modern state of Israel.
Peres was a study in contradictions:
- The hawk who armed and led the development of the Israel Defense Forces and embraced the settlements and the dove who negotiated mutual recognition with the Palestine Liberation Organization and spend the past quarter-century trying to find a way to a two-state solution.
- The man despised by many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs for his role in securing Israel against its enemies, including the occasional killing of civilians, and the man hated by many Israelis for either being too accommodating to the Palestinians or not going far enough.
- The man of diplomacy who used his skills to persuade France to help Israel become the world’s first secret nuclear power.
- The youthful immigrant to Israel who became a shepherd and farmer before entering government service but who, unlike his contemporaries among Israel’s founding fathers, preferred a jacket and tie to an open collar.
- The living symbol of Israel’s heroic past who always preferred to look forward, not least in championing his nation as a global high-tech superpower.
- The defense leader who was never much of a soldier and the politician who lost over and over again, only to find the popular love as an elder statesman that eluded him as a younger one.
He had a bitter political rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin within his own party, yet he will always be remembered as Rabin’s public right hand through the Oslo process, including the signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993, the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance in 1994 and the national crisis of Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
Then Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Peres had befriended as a young man in 1976 over the death of Netanyahu’s brother in the Entebbe raid Peres ordered, effectively ended his political career with an electoral defeat in 1996, only for both men to return to office around the same time — Peres as president in 2007, Netanyahu as prime minister in 2009.
Netanyahu was not playing the politician in his eulogy at Peres’. He expressed real grief at the loss of someone with whom, in true Jewish style, he could spend all night arguing and still walk away friends.
If a Jerusalem Post report is accurate, Peres carried enough influence and respect to prevent Netanyahu from following through with plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities around 2010. We’re not sure anyone else in Israeli politics could change Netanyahu’s mind about anything anymore.
But the final contradiction we’re left to contemplate is this: As World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder said, Peres deserved to be seen as “Mr. Israel” for the ways he and his nation developed together the past seven decades. Yet somehow in 2016 Peres is beloved in many of the same places Israel appears to be despised.
We can only hope that Peres’ true legacy is an Israel that not only endures, but achieves the same respect and admiration its last founding father received.