Can Israel’s Peace Movement Survive the Loss of Shimon Peres?

As the world pays tribute to the former Israeli prime minister, some in the country worry that the two-state solution may have died with him.

ISRAEL - MAY 10:  Shimon Peres in the Druze village of Daliata Karmel in Israel on May 10th, 1977.  (Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
ISRAEL - MAY 10: Shimon Peres in the Druze village of Daliata Karmel in Israel on May 10th, 1977. (Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV, Israel — In his twilight years, Shimon Peres became the ultimate symbol of the Israeli peace camp. The Zionist visionary, statesman, and legendary dove among hawks, who died on Wednesday morning at the age of 93, had a place at the Israeli political table since before the state’s 1948 founding. And for a brief and golden period in the 1990s, when he broke all of Israel’s rules to negotiate directly with the PLO to push through the much-lauded Oslo Accords (for which he earned a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1994), Peres looked poised to end Israel’s legacy of conflict for good.

But Peres, who served in virtually every governmental capacity over the course of more than six decades — from stints as defense minister and transportation minister to president to prime minister — never achieved the peace he so passionately sought for Israel. He was one of the architects of Israel’s highly controversial land-for-peace initiative dividing into parcels areas for both Jews and Arabs. His pursuit of which came, he openly admitted, not from a bleeding heart but from a pragmatic sense of what was necessary to secure a safe Israel.

Speaking to a massive crowd at a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in November 2014, the former prime minister reminded Israelis of his philosophy:

“He who has despaired from peace is the one hallucinating. Whoever gives in and stops seeking peace — he is naive, he is the one who is not a patriot! In order to be practical and not hallucinate and not be naïve, there is a need to recognize several basic truths that are sharp, clear and eternal.

“Israel will not have permanent security without peace. Israel will not have a stable thriving economy without peace. Israel will not have a healthy society free from poverty and discrimination without peace. Israel has no chance of preserving its Jewish democratic character without peace. Israel will be giving up its future if it sees the status quo as its desire.”

On Wednesday, as Israelis mourned the last of their founding fathers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line rightist government held a special moment of silence in his honor, Peres’s death felt emblematic, marking the end of the optimism and irrational dreaming that helped bring the state of Israel into the world. The peace process is also dead, at least for now.

For though Peres held a largely ceremonial role on Israel’s political scene for the last two decades of his life, exercising little actual influence over national politics, his optimism, humor, and dogged insistence on the potential for a better Middle East were, for many Israelis, the final gasps of hope. With Peres gone, his friends and former colleagues say, the trademark Israeli optimism that the nation was founded on is gone as well.

“He really was the last of the founding fathers. The last Mohican, if you will,” said Danny Ayalon, the former deputy foreign minister who served as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2002-2006 under Ariel Sharon. “He was easily the most popular Israeli among the international community, always welcomed by world leaders, and so many Israeli politicians — and those who wanted to become politicians — went to him for advice.”

Peres was held in high regard among world leaders, many of whom, including U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Prince Charles, are reportedly planning to gather in Jerusalem on Friday for his funeral. After the Israeli leader’s death on Wednesday, Obama issued a statement in which he described Peres as a friend: “Shimon was the essence of Israel itself.… As Americans, we are in his debt because, having worked with every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, no one did more over so many years as Shimon Peres to build the alliance between our two countries—an unbreakable alliance that today is closer and stronger than it has ever been.”

World leaders across the spectrum were drawn to his optimism and dogged determination that Israel could achieve peace. Following the announcement of Peres’s death, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “[p]ained by his demise” while Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, tweeted that “Shimon Peres was, above all, a man of peace. My deepest condolences to his loved ones and to the people of Israel on his passing.” Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent a personal letter to Peres’s family expressing his condolences.

Dan Rather perhaps summed up the leader’s magnetism best, tweeting: “Of all political leaders I have ever met, few commanded a room with as much grace, charm, and depth as Shimon Peres.”

There isn’t a single Israeli politician alive today who inspires that sort of warmth or confidence, Ayalon said, and with his death, a vital line of communication will close.

But in the Middle East idealism rarely survives a tussle with reality, and the 1990s closed with the optimism of the Oslo Accords giving way to the horrors of Rabin’s assassination and Palestinian terrorist attacks. Today, the peace process stands at an absolute impasse, a situation Ayalon, like many Israelis, attributes to the lack of a negotiating partner among the Palestinians.

Einat Wilf, a former Knesset member who served as Peres’s foreign-policy advisor during his tenure as vice prime minister, described the statesman as a final optimistic holdout, someone who insisted on believing in a better future at a time when most national pundits had already surrendered to pessimism and grim geopolitical forecasts

“There is a sense today that we are bidding farewell to a grand imagination,” she said. “But I think the mood turned dark long before, as we recognized the grand historical forces at work. [Peres’s] passing is symbolic, but in terms of geopolitics, it won’t change anything. The possibility of peace will be determined by forces far greater than any single person.”

After Oslo, however, Peres became one of Israel’s most controversial figures. The left blamed him for the death of Rabin; the right blamed him for the onslaught of Palestinian terrorism that came in its wake. In 1996, he was voted out of the nation’s highest office in favor of the hard-line Netanyahu. The Second Intifada soon followed, and Peres shifted his attention to his Peres Center for Peace and private projects. Although he made something of a political comeback in the mid-2000s, many in Israel say that his political influence effectively ended with the bullet that took out Rabin.

But Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Zionist Union party, sees it differently.

“Peres’s vision of a two-state solution is alive and kicking,” he said. “Peres dreamt of the new Middle East, and in many ways there is an opportunity for a new Middle East. The tragedy is that both peoples want, in an overwhelming majority, to move toward that two-state solution, and it’s not happening due to political impediments.… In 100 years, we will see that many of the things that Peres wrote about and imagined will come true.”

Peace, Peres insisted, was about much more than the laying down of arms. It was about the allocation of resources toward education and arts, to seeing a long-term solution in a short-sighted land.

“If you have children,” Peres said the same day he signed the Oslo Accords, “you cannot feed them forever with flags for breakfast and cartridges for lunch. You need something more substantial. Unless you educate your children and spend less money on conflicts, unless you develop your science, technology, and industry, you don’t have a future.”

Author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi referred to the leader as a “long-term prophet” and said his inability to create peace in his lifetime was a failure of the peace process, not the other way around.

Both of his official terms as prime minister came not as the result of an election. His finest and most beloved hour in Israel came at the end of his life, when his role as president was entirely ceremonial. Nevertheless, Halevi said, Peres’s symbolic worth to the Israeli psyche is beyond measure.

“He became the grandfather of Israel,” Halevi said. “He was not a beloved politician, he did not win a single election, but … he represented the founding generation at a time when Israelis have been losing the optimism of the [nation’s] founders.”

Though it’s unlikely the political situation will be drastically different in post-Peres Israel, Halevi feels that how Israelis view their neighbors, and the efforts they are willing to make toward that ever elusive mission of coexistence, is likely to shift.

“Israelis tend to be a very optimistic people when it comes to their own lives and about the future of the country, but they are profoundly pessimistic about relations with the Palestinians,” Halevi said. “Peres really was the most compelling voice reminding us that our optimism shouldn’t be selective. It needs to also apply to our most pressing and long-term problem. Whether they know it or not, that’s a voice that Israelis will miss.”

Photo credit: FRANCOIS LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Debra Kamin is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.