Shimon Peres, who died on Monday at the age of 93, spent much of the last couple of decades of his life paying lip service to the idea of making peace with the Palestinians, and so it’s much easier for world leaders to eulogize him as a “man of peace” than it was to do so with, say, Peres’s long-time rival Ariel Sharon. Influential pundits can mourn his loss as “the passing of hope” and probably not get a whole lot of push-back. But just because a lot of people with big platforms say a thing, it doesn’t necessarily make that thing true.
Peres has been called Israel’s “last founding father,” since his roots in Israeli politics predate Israel’s founding in 1948. He served in several of the highest posts in the Israeli government–multiple stints as defense minister, foreign minister, and prime minister, and most recently a term as president (he’s the only Israeli leader to serve as both prime minister and president). In one of his stints as foreign minister, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along side his boss, PM Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat, for their work in negotiating the Oslo Accords. That Oslo never led to peace is only one of a few ironies to consider with respect to that award. It’s Oslo whence Peres gets a lot of his reputation as a leading pro-peace Israeli voice.
But Peres’s legacy is far cloudier than all these eulogies would suggest, and his commitment to “peace” had a lot more to do with ridding Israel of threats than it did with securing a just and safe future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. He helped negotiate Oslo but was but looked the other way when it came to the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which he described in the 1970s as “the roots and the eyes of Israel” and which were perhaps the single greatest systemic reason why Oslo never had a chance for success. If it’s true that he experienced a genuine change of heart on settlements, then that change of heart conveniently coincided with his departure from active political life (the Israeli presidency is purely ceremonial).
In truth, despite having been in and around the Israeli government for nearly all of Israel’s existence to date, Peres achieved little that could be considered successful peacemaking. Before he became known for his supposed dovishness, he was responsible for building up the Israeli military and for essentially masterminding the Israeli nuclear weapons program that we’re all still supposed to pretend never existed. And while I can buy that he maybe had a later-life epiphany around issues of war and peace with Israel’s neighbors, that doesn’t explain why, in his second stint as prime minister, he was responsible for the IDF’s brutal 1996 massacre at the Qana refugee camp in southern Lebanon. That atrocity post-dated his Nobel.
Haaretz’s Gideon Levy explains the fundamental contradiction underlying Peres’s commitment to “peace”:
He wanted peace. Who doesn’t? But the truth must be told, even in difficult moments; he never perceived the Palestinians as equal to Jews, and certainly not as having equal rights.
After years in the company of David Ben-Gurion perhaps it was too difficult to formulate a different approach. Human rights and international law didn’t interest him, and Palestinian suffering didn’t move him.
Any “peace” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that doesn’t recognize the rights and basic humanity of both parties is not actually peace and will never be sustainable. That Peres never seemed to recognize this is enough to tarnish his legacy.