Flawed visionary who came so close to delivering peace
Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30
Shimon Peres served his country with distinction for almost 70 years.
Peres was a flawed visionary and beset by contradictions: he was determined to achieve peace with Israel's Arab neighbours, but couldn't shake off the hawkish instincts he had developed as the protégé of Israel's veteran statesman, David Ben Gurion.
He was bold and far-sighted in seeking an agreement with Jordan's King Hussein in 1987, but his caution undermined it. Peres was greatly distrusted both by his colleagues within the Labour party, his rivals in the Likud and the wider Israeli public.
Yet after Menachem Begin's election victory in 1977, which put an end to 29 years of Labour party domination in Israel, Peres began to embrace dovish ideas. In his memoirs, 'Battling for Peace', Peres maintained that the Palestinian question had to be resolved not only for political reasons but also as a "moral imperative".
Peres sought a peace agreement with Jordan's King Hussein in order to restore the heavily populated areas of the West Bank to Jordanian rule, with the inclusion of Gaza, while leaving the strategically important areas under Israeli control.
Following the elections in July 1984, Peres entered a national unity coalition with Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud. The national unity government was a formula for political paralysis since Peres and Shamir were miles apart in their ideological positions, but Peres was seen by many world leaders as the great hope for achieving a peace settlement. In April 1987, Peres (now foreign minister) met secretly with King Hussein in London, where an agreement was reached to launch a process of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Unfortunately for Peres, Shamir (now prime minister) was fiercely opposed to the Peres-Hussein agreement. Ultimately, Peres lacked the courage to bring down the national unity government over his agreement with King Hussein. Had he done so, he might have won over the Israeli electorate. Instead, excessive caution was his undoing. He later lost the November 1988 election to Shamir's Likud, and a valuable opportunity was missed. The extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would soon be taking advantage of the growing political vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza.
Likud was eventually defeated at the polls by Labour in June 1992, but it was Peres' rival Yitzhak Rabin who delivered the victory. Rabin and Peres knew that the conflict with the Palestinians could not be resolved without the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Peres met secretly in Oslo with the PLO and a month later, Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, setting out a timetable for ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and resolving the conflict.
Following Rabin's assassination in November 1995, Peres returned as prime minister. Yet his peace efforts were complicated by his need to be perceived as a tough man in the face of Palestinian terror.
Peres approved the assassination of a Hamas master bombmaker in January 1996. Hamas responded with a wave of suicide bombings on Israel's streets.
Peres also authorised an operation against Hizbullah in Lebanon in April 1996 in which Israel mistakenly shelled a UN base in Qana, killing over 100 refugees and damaging support for Peres within Israel's Arab community.
These two episodes were to prove fatal for Peres when facing Binyamin Netanyahu in the Israeli elections of May 1996.
While Peres would remain active as a statesman and became President in 2007, his political influence waned.
Tragically, Peres's vision of a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours is today viewed by many as a pipe dream.
*Dr Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University