The Transformation of Shimon Peres
How the last of Israel's founding fathers went from "Mr. Security" to become his country's most prominent dove.
I first met Shimon Peres in 1963. He was then deputy minister of defense, 40 years of age, and already nearly a legend. He was considered the right-hand man of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion; the closest confidant of Moshe Dayan; an absolute technocrat; a brilliant media manipulator; and a pronounced leader of scientific development. I was 15 years old, and my colleagues and I were interviewing Peres for a teen magazine.
His charisma was impressive. Peres was — and still is — a man who projects self-confidence free of self-righteousness. We young reporters already knew of his central role in the Israeli coordination with France and Britain during the 1956 Sinai War and of his part in the establishment of the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. We saw in Peres a man who could connect with us in a way that the generation of giants who used to deliver long and bombastic speeches could not.
I interviewed Peres a second time, in 1976, when I wrote for the Davar Daily, a newspaper for Israel’s trade unions that was close to the Labor Party. Peres was then a very popular defense minister who served under Yitzhak Rabin — an unpopular prime minister who personally despised him. Peres was the hawk of the Israeli cabinet — he had reservations regarding territorial compromise and was strongly opposed to a Palestinian state. During our time together, Peres explained his view on the need for more Israeli settlements. Settlements, he argued, served as "the roots and the eyes of Israel."
As Peres ends his term as president on July 24 and begins the next chapter in his life (he’s only 90!), he will have yet another opportunity to reinvent himself. For many years, he was considered "Mr. Security." Building Israeli might was the focus of his activities, and the people closest to him were military and security officials, who saw him as their steadfast representative in the political system. After the Six-Day War, Peres promoted a political solution in which the Palestinians would be treated as human beings — but would never get a state of their own. In Tomorrow is Now, Peres’s 1978 book that would serve as his political platform, he wrote: "I think we can establish three entities: Israel and Jordan, and a new third entity, ruled by both of us."
This thought followed him many years later. As for the settlements, in his book he presented a plan to develop settlements that stretched from the Sinai Peninsula to Israel’s border with Jordan. This network of settlements, he wrote, would defend Israel by "fortifying Jerusalem … [and establishing] the Jordan River as our security border." Meanwhile, settlements in the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967, "were designed as a checkpoint northeast to prevent an attack."
Peres seemed unconcerned at the time that the settlements would sabotage efforts to create an independent Palestinian state. "[M]aybe this Arab generation cannot live in harmony and peace with Israel," he wrote. "Perhaps this Arab generation can [agree] only to some interim arrangement, but the arrangement should not involve a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, neither the establishment of a Palestinian state."
But Peres gradually started to shift leftward. As a rising star in the left-wing political bloc, he found himself the vice president of the Socialist International and became close with politicians like former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. He began to meet with Palestinian leaders, mainly from East Jerusalem, to speak of the need to divide the land. And he fought against Labor Party hawks in supporting the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — an agreement that included the Israeli evacuation of the Sinai settlements and air force bases that Peres had once championed.
Caustic attacks on Peres from the right also helped to catalyze his political evolution. In advance of the 1981 election, right-wingers tried to shame Peres with the "guilt" of supposedly having an Arab mother. It was a violent and belligerent campaign, as Peres represented the peace camp while Begin led the nationalistic camp. In the summer months of 1981, right-wing extremists threw tomatoes at him while he spoke, hurled stones at his car, and in one instance prevented him from speaking in the city of Beit Shemesh.
The violence and threats Peres faced during those months permanently severed his connection to his former centrism. In 1982, he made the defining decision to participate in a huge demonstration organized by the left-wing "Peace Now" movement following the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.
In the years leading up to his first election as prime minister in 1984, Peres also found it politically necessary to emphasize his left-wing views. As the head of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition, he could not remain a centrist — and at the time, his views on settlement construction, peace with the Arabs, territorial compromise, and the nature of the Israeli economy were too close to those of the right-wing Begin. Parliamentary confrontations with Begin pushed Peres to draw stark contrasts with the government, which created great dissonance between his political actions and his former self-image.
Following the 1984 election, Labor and Likud — which had each captured virtually the same number of seats in the Knesset — agreed to form a national unity government. The most contentious issue they faced was coming to an agreement on Israeli settlement construction. Peres, then opposed to settlements, fought to reduce them as much as he could. He eventually struck a compromise: The government decided to establish six settlements over a four-year period. He had made a successful and popular political transition — he was now known as a true dove.
By the 1990s, Peres became a symbol of Israel’s willingness to compromise. In 1993, when he threw his support behind the Oslo Accords — and won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat — the transformation was complete. For those on the extreme right, "Mr. Security" had become one of the "Oslo criminals." The pragmatic technocrat became an ideologue and a dreamer.
So, after an almost seven-decade-long political and military career, who is Shimon Peres? He is a wise man who is able to shift his positions when he comes to the conclusion that such a change is consistent with the interests of the State of Israel. He is a curious person, a believer in scientific progress, and a man of reconciliation. He has taught those who are willing to listen that our Arab and Palestinian neighbors are human beings. Shimon Peres, a man once untrusting of Israel’s neighbors, will be remembered for his most recent face — one of relentless optimism in the pursuit of peace.