What Would Shimon Do?

Israel’s last founding father never gave up on peace with Palestine — but he also had plans in case it failed for good.

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)

It is hard to imagine Israel without Shimon Peres. At every phase of the country’s development, from its early struggles to survive to its evolution into the start-up nation it is today, Peres wasn’t just there; he was instrumental. And he will be sorely missed in the country’s difficult years

In his 20s, he developed Israel’s Defense Ministry and its defense industries. During Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, a time when the United States was keeping its distance from Israel, he negotiated with the French and acquired arms, strategic military backing, and the commitment to build a nuclear reactor in Dimona. He would play the pivotal role in convincing John F. Kennedy to break the taboo on providing arms to Israel, lest the Israelis be unable to deter war at a time when modern Soviet weaponry was flowing into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In the mid-1980s, when the debilitating war in Lebanon decimated Israel’s spirit and its economy, producing triple-digit inflation, it was Peres — then-prime minister in a national unity government — who withdrew from nearly all of Lebanon and presided over fundamental economic reforms that led to a cash infusion from Ronald Reagan’s administration. His actions rescued the situation and set Israel on a path of meaningful growth and development. In the 1990s, he was the force behind the Oslo peace process, believing both that the world was changing and that the First Intifada and regional dynamics after the Gulf War had created the need and the opportunity to try to reconcile with the Palestinians. In more recent times, as president of Israel, he tirelessly promoted Israeli technology, scientific advances, and public-private sector partnerships, convening each year a conference he billed as the “Jewish Davos.”

Peres always thought strategically, not tactically. He understood a small country like Israel had to anticipate problems and threats and not only react to them. He took this and many other lessons from his mentor and model David Ben-Gurion: bolster Israel’s deterrence, avoid isolation internationally, gain the backing of a great power, never shy away from making decisions, avoid the risk of not acting, don’t miss opportunities — and above all think big. Like all those of Israel’s founding generation — and he was the last surviving member — Peres saw the need to make big decisions. Like them, he was determined to ensure Israel would always remain a Jewish, democratic state. Like both Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, rivals for much of his career and theirs but also partners at the end, they all shared the same conviction that Israel must not become a binational state. The Oslo peace process was driven at least in part by this. Joining Sharon in his new party, Kadima, was similarly motivated.

Peres might have been more hopeful than either Rabin or Sharon that a peace deal to end the conflict could be negotiated with the Palestinians. But for all the talk of Peres being a dreamer, he was at his core a pragmatist who saw peace not in abstract but tangible terms — even if it meant promoting big projects that struck some as too ambitious and unlikely ever to materialize. Peres could always visualize progress and the grand economic projects that would foster it. I recall the first time, nearly 20 years ago, that I heard him speak about his vision for a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal — how it could prevent the Dead Sea from further withering and, just as importantly, develop an area within both southern Jordan and Israel that was rich in minerals and otherwise would remain largely untouched. He had a similar view of the benefits of an international airport in the Wadi Araba area on the Jordanian side of the border and how it could serve both Jordan and Israel and produce greater tourism and revenue. Both of these projects are now being developed with great promise.

His hopes for peace with the Palestinians have, however, not materialized. Unfortunately, the prospects now seem more distant than at any time since the beginning of Oslo. The Israeli and Palestinian publics no longer believe that peace is possible, with each being convinced that the other rejects a two-state outcome. Palestinians point to Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories and believe that Israel will never countenance an independent Palestinian state. Israelis see ongoing incitement in the Palestinian media, mosques, and textbooks that glorify violence against Israelis — as well as a consistent Palestinian rejection that the Jews are a people entitled to self-determination and a state of their own.

How did Peres view the stalemate and loss of the peace-making process? And what would he do to prevent Israel from becoming a binational state, given the current realities and trends? I know from my conversations with him that he was critical of his own government and its settlement policies and inability to take initiatives. He was also critical of the Palestinian Authority for its unwillingness to build the institutions and infrastructure of a state — and its preference for internationalizing the conflict over negotiating even in private. He was also critical of the United States for its own hesitancy and reluctance to stick with an active diplomacy that might help blunt the deterioration while also offering a pathway forward.

One thing I know for sure: Shimon Peres would not give up, and he would not acquiesce to Israel losing its basic character. In the current circumstances, recognizing that there is a strategic convergence of interest between Israel and the leading Sunni Arab states, he would probe to see what role the Arabs could play, including in the negotiations. He would not see them taking the place of the Palestinians but offering them cover at a time when the Palestinians seem paralyzed by their weakness, division, and the reality that many are positioning themselves for succession to Mahmoud Abbas. But he would also see the Arab cover as providing political space for the Israeli government to make possible concessions to the Palestinians that otherwise would not be possible without a payoff from the Arabs in return.

Peres would hope that the United States could help stimulate the private Arab-Israeli-Palestinian talks, knowing that reassurance from America is often necessary for all the parties to expose themselves to risk. But Peres, always believing that in the first instance Israel must determine its own destiny and not leave it to others, would also probably be pushing for a national unity government in Israel. He would see that as the only way an initiative — like no longer building in the occupied territories — would likely prove politically possible. And he would know getting the Arabs to take public moves toward Israel would require their being able to point to what Israel was now doing to address Palestinian concerns. Peres would have little patience for those in the Israeli government and the key opposition parties who block a move toward national unity, preferring to gain domestic political advantage over taking diplomatic advantage of what may be a strategic opening in the region created by the convergence of interest between Israel and the leading Arab states. He would want to make it possible to take the steps that might move Arab states to play a new role on peace given their view that Israel serves as a bulwark against the Iranian and radical Islamist threats they fear most.

Of course, even with the best efforts, Palestinian divisions and Arab preoccupation with other threats and priorities might mean any initiative would fail. And, in the end, if negotiations could not produce, Peres would look to unilateral Israeli steps to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel, perhaps by defining a temporary border, limiting settlement activity to so-called “settlement blocs” likely to be absorbed into Israel in any peace negotiations anyway, giving financial incentives to settlers to move back into Israel or the settlement blocs, and seeking to maximize international support for Israeli moves designed to show it is doing its part to promote a two-state outcome — and that it is time to put pressure on the Palestinians to do the same.

Unfortunately, we don’t have Peres any longer, but we have his example. And, as the United States and Israel look to the future, we might do well to ask, “What would Shimon do?”

Photo credit: LIOR MIZRAHI/Getty Images

Dennis Ross is the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. Twitter: @AmbDennisRoss

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