Talking Presidents, Politics, and Peace With Shimon Peres

In conversations, the former prime minister of Israel revealed why he never lied to David Ben-Gurion, what he considered his first political achievement, and how Ronald Reagan "conquered" his heart.

Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during an interview in the President house on April 10, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during an interview in the President house on April 10, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Shimon Peres will be buried as a hero on Friday at a funeral in Jerusalem attended by representatives from more than 70 countries, including current and former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although at the time of his death he held no office, there is almost no office in the Israel government he had not held: He served as president once, prime minister two times, foreign minister three times, defense minister twice, and he also served as finance minister and transportation minister.

Yet back in the 1990s, Peres was driven from the prime minister’s office as terrorism reigned in the wake of the Oslo Accords and Israelis grew skeptical of his leadership. Indeed, Israelis derided Peres as an unrealistic peacemaker and in 1996 elected a young prime minister named Benjamin Netanyahu instead.

At the time, the country was yearning for an aggressive leader, one who would respond to the deluge of Palestinian suicide bombings that had devastated Israel that year. Voters had come to view Peres, who would not abandon peace negotiations, as soft, believing his pursuit of peace was risking public security, while Netanyahu promised a hard line against Palestinian terrorism. They had forgotten Peres’s role in creating the country’s military industrial complex.

In his early days, Peres had been a hawk.

As the director-general of the Defense Ministry, he had created a secret connection with the French, convincing them to sell arms to a then-isolated Israel back in the late 1950s. Peres had forged another secret connection with Germany, which became Israel’s second lifeline as the Germans then also started to sell it arms — something the United States refused to do until many years later. Reportedly, he was also the father of Israel’s nuclear program at Dimona.

In June 2012, while Peres was in Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I sat down with him at Blair House to interview him for the Washington Post. In a conversation that covered topics from the crisis in Syria to the Arab Spring to events in Iran, Peres was relaxed and elated after receiving his medal from President Barack Obama. To an aide, Peres recommended the autobiography my mother — Katharine Graham — wrote as she too had received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I was really taken by the combination of wisdom and sincerity,” he noted, adding, “and Lally has that also.”

Turning to the past, Peres then talked about what he saw as his first great achievement: persuading France to sell arms to a fledgling Israel way back in the 1950s when the country was virtually isolated.

“There was an [arms] embargo by the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Canada. It only affected Israel because the Russians did not respect it. So the Arabs got the arms, and we got nothing,” he said. “The problem was how to break this embargo. The foreign minister thought he could convince the Americans, that he could convince the Canadians, that he could convince the British, and I told him there was no chance. I said, ‘Let me try the French.’ Nobody [in Israel] thought France was a serious option.”

Peres was the protégé of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and its primary founder. He started working for Ben-Gurion when he was just 24 years old. His former mentor, he told me, had had an enormous impact on his life.

Leaning forward in his chair and gesturing, Peres said firmly: “Ben-Gurion was a great man. He had a fantastic memory. He was a real intellectual and spoke seven or eight languages. When he gave you his word, it was his word. With all his great talents, he remained an innocent man. He didn’t have a trace of cynicism or skepticism. I learned quickly there are two rules to work with him: never lie, but dare as much as you want. That fits my character. That meant if I took a daring position, I could make mistakes. Moses was born in a box. Let’s move out of the box.”

In the decades following his work building up Israel’s military might, Peres underwent a gradual transformation from “Peres the hawk” to “Peres the peace-seeker.” He was steadfast in his search for peace. When I asked him at Blair House if he still favored a two-state solution with the Palestinians, he said:

“I think all the other alternatives are unacceptable. I haven’t changed my mind. I think [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is a partner, and I think we can achieve peace with him. We have to try to do our best. The problem between us and the Palestinians is the following: They are not talking about negotiations; they are talking about the opening of negotiations. You cannot negotiate without an opening. The complicated issues [of peace, borders, etc.] may take time. What can be done immediately is to open negotiations.”

When asked if ending the conflict seemed like a hopeless endeavor, he gave a response I will always remember: “There are no hopeless situations, only hopeless people.”

During the many times I interviewed him over the years, Peres had always emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship to Israel. He had met and worked closely with every U.S. president since Harry Truman.

In the grand Blair House room where we were sitting, right across from the White House, Peres reflected: “The first president I met to talk to was [John F.] Kennedy. Kennedy started to question me like a machine gun. It was the day our chief of intelligence resigned. All of a sudden Kennedy said, ‘Do you have a nuclear bomb?’ I said, ‘Israel will not be the first to introduce a nuclear bomb in the Middle East.’ After the meeting, the ambassador said, ‘How dare you give such an answer?’ And then I got a cable from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol saying, ‘Why did you say this?’ Three or four weeks later, it became the official policy of Israel. So I think I said the right thing.”

Then Peres turned to reminiscing about President Ronald Reagan:

“Now to tell you about a Republican president with whom I was extremely friendly — that was President Reagan. When I first met him, I didn’t know he was the president. He was so modest. He conquered my heart, and we developed a personal friendship. In every meeting Reagan told me an anti-Russian joke, and I also had to bring from Israel an anti-Russian joke.”

Then it was Bill Clinton’s turn:

“When I am speaking about American presidents, I have to speak about my very special relations with President Clinton. He contributed more to peace than anybody else.”

When I asked Peres if he shared the belief of some that Obama is not friendly toward Israel, he replied: “I don’t accept it. President Obama is an exceedingly intelligent person. Don’t underrate him. I find it very easy to trust him.”

Always a fan of the United States, Peres summed up his love of the country by saying, “America is the only country that became powerful by giving and not by taking, the only nation that understood that generosity is a great policy. My admiration for America is sincere. It is not passing. I came here without knowing English. I spent two years here, and I was really taken by America — by the hard work, the sense of democracy, and the friendship to Israel — it fell upon me like an unbelievable surprise.”

That June afternoon in Washington wasn’t the first time I interviewed Shimon Peres; the first time was back in 1981 — and 13 more interviews with him would follow over the years. He was always interested in the life of the mind; he was a voracious reader and an optimist. Who else at age 90 would hold a conference in Jerusalem called “Facing Tomorrow”?

“Your proudest moment?” I asked him once in Jerusalem. He replied quickly, “You have to build strength because it may save the use of force. I think you have to build peace, not just negotiate peace.”

Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founders, was a symbol of the hope for peace and a man dedicated to the country he loved. His measured voice and wisdom will be missed in his country and in the region.

Farewell, Mr. President.

Photo credit: LIOR MIZRAHI/Getty Images

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