Shimon Peres, an Israeli statesman, died on September 28th, aged 93
HE OUTLIVED all his country’s other founding fathers, but failed in what he most yearned for: to lead it into a lasting peace. Missed opportunities dogged Shimon Peres’s career. He gained the highest offices—prime minister, twice, and president—but the political arithmetic invariably went against him. His forte was foreign policy, but his political nemesis, Menachem Begin, signed the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, and his arch-rival, Yitzhak Rabin, got most of the plaudits for Israel’s deal in 1993 with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
Mr Peres’s imprint was lasting, nonetheless. As a precocious young civil servant, he brokered arms deals which helped his uniformed counterparts to get the weapons they needed. He circumvented arms embargoes with creative ruses, such as buying warplanes as, purportedly, film props, and cannily found leaky frigates and rusty tanks in places where they were no longer needed. He bargained hard, shaming rich countries for charging full price to tiny, beleaguered Israel, and cajoling rich sympathisers. It meant breaking a lot of rules. Jimmy Hoffa, boss of America’s Teamsters union, became a friend, and Israel’s rapprochement with West Germany was cemented with marathon drinking sessions with the arch-conservative Bavarian, Franz-Josef Strauss.
Perhaps his greatest achievement in this sphere was a secret deal with France which laid the foundations for Israel’s never-avowed nuclear arsenal. Only this year did Mr Peres obliquely acknowledge it, saying that it made the Arabs realise that the Jewish state couldn’t be obliterated, thus laying the foundations for at least a partial peace. “There are two things that cannot be made without closing your eyes,” he told the New York Times in 2013: “love and peace. If you try to make them with open eyes, you won’t get anywhere.”
He switched from the civil service to electoral politics, but found it hard to make his mark in the Labour party—a cause he had served since his teens. A better backroom operator than campaigning politician, he slyly egged on the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank after 1967, at a time when it was still on the fringes of Israeli politics; the settlements have stymied peace efforts ever since. Rabin called him, aptly, “the tireless intriguer”. Though politics obsessed him from childhood, driving out (some said) all other interests, he was wooden on television and was perhaps too fond of aphorisms (“You can turn eggs into omelettes, but it is very difficult to turn omelettes into eggs.”) Personal political relationships were difficult. His closest ally was Moshe Dayan, but the adoration he bestowed on the dashing former general was not reciprocated. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, appreciated his talents, but would not confide in him.
The problem lay deep. He was never part of the bronzed sabra culture of Israel, having arrived as an immigrant from Poland at the age of 11. His Hebrew had a Polish twang, and his attempt to find a resonant Hebrew name to replace “Persky”, which he was born with, ended only in “Peres”, a sort of bird. In a country which reveres military valour, he was a man in a suit. Unlike many Jews of his generation, he did not fight the Nazis or put on uniform in Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Throughout his career he was ribbed for his vanity, including plastic surgery and, more recently, a diet consisting largely of low-fat cheese, salad and green tea.
When at last he reached the top, as Labour leader in 1977, it cruelly coincided with a shift in the political climate. Religious and ultranationalist parties were on the rise; voters rejected a Labour elite they saw as weak and aloof. He led the party in five elections, but never won outright.
Having helped to build Israel’s war machine, he became a dove; Israel was now strong, he argued, and could achieve true security through compromise. But this essentially optimistic message often fell flat. He opposed the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981, which most Israelis thought a masterstroke.
His best election result was a stalemate in 1984, which led to a two-year rotation of the top job with Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader. Labour did win in 1992, but under Rabin. Two years later he shared the Nobel peace prize with Rabin and Arafat: respected abroad, still unpopular at home. He returned to office on a wave of emotion after the assassination of Rabin in 1995. But his chance to achieve peace with the Palestinians was blown away by a spate of Islamist suicide-bombings and by Israel’s war in Lebanon. He was narrowly defeated by Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996.
A new generation of Labour leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to force him to retire. Instead, on his second attempt and at 83, he became Israel’s largely ceremonial president. As head of state he was muzzled, forced in public to back Mr Netanyahu and defend his policies abroad; yet he conspired with the intelligence services to block the plans to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Once more, the intriguer tirelessly intrigued. His doings seemed remarkably public, immediately posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by his almost entirely female staff (males, he had found, betrayed him). Undoubtedly, other exploits will remain untold for years.