The political life of Shimon Peres lasted almost as long as a normal lifetime – three score and 10 years. The secret of such longevity was his ability to adapt to political reality as he saw it and not to be hidebound by ideological principles.
He learned this at the knee of David Ben Gurion – first as an admirer as a young labour pioneer in the early 1940s and then as his confidante during the 1950s. Peres was the ‘almost’ man of Israeli politics who was expected to win but always lost. He was prime minister for a few months in 1977 after Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation and then for a similar period following Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
His longest time in office as Prime Minister was in the national unity government with the Likud between 1984 and 1986. He was expected to succeed Yitzhak Shamir in 1990 but was thwarted by an about-turn by Charedi politicians. He was then expected to defeat Netanyahu in 1995 but the advent of Hamas’s suicide bombers put paid to that hope.
Even when he stood for president in 2001, the walkover never happened and Moshe Katsav succeeded to the post instead. Such an unprecedented string of disappointments would have crushed most politicians.
Peres was elected to the Knesset in the 1959 election as a candidate for Mapai, the forerunner of the Labour party. He sided with Ben Gurion and left with him when he broke with Mapai in 1965 to form Rafi. The party only achieved 10 seats in the 1965 election. For Peres this was a disaster since it severely reduced his opportunity of becoming a future prime minister.
In 1968, Peres opted with the rest of the Rafi MKs to join the newly established Labour party, leadingthe hawkish wing of the party. The debacle of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, led to the resignations of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. A year later Rabin defeated Peres for the party leadership, initiating a 20-year-long rivalry.
As defence minister in the first Rabin government, Peres continued to be a standard bearer for the right and adopted an accommodating position towards the West Bank settlers in cabinet discussions.
Rabin’s attempts to cure the Labour party of corruption met with limited success – and he himself resigned when his wife was found to possess an unlawful foreign bank account. Peres took over as caretaker prime minister and went down to a resounding defeat by Menachem Begin in the 1977 election. Peres continued as Labour leader, welcoming the Camp David agreement and peace with Egypt. Yet a late comeback by Begin in the 1981 election allowed Likud to pip Labour at the post. Begin’s second government was far more radical than his first and ended in the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During this period Peres turned from the right to the left and aligned himself with Israeli doves.
The electorate in 1984 was divided in their allegiance and this led to the “rotation government” of a Labour-Likud coalition. Peres was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 with Shamir succeeding to the post to serve a further two years. Peres proved a very capable leader, withdrawing the troops from Lebanon and fixing a badly damaged economy.
He expected to become prime minister once more in 1990. Charedi backpedalling produced another failure but this was a defeat too many for Labour members and he was replaced by the more electable Rabin. The Labour government led by Rabin with Peres as foreign minister signed the Oslo Accord with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. The peace process was perhaps the pinnacle of Peres’s career and it earned him a Nobel Peace Prize together with Arafat and Rabin.
With his unexpected defeat in 1996 and the election of Netanyahu, Peres’s career seemed to be over. A new generation of Labour politicians displaced the octogenarian Peres in 2005 and he lost its leadership for the last time.
In 2007 he left formal party politics to become president, retiring in 2014.
Peres managed to survive in the bear-pit of Israeli politics, with charm and sophistication. His transformation from Shimon Perski from Vishnyeva in Belarus to Shimon Peres, builder of the Hebrew republic, is a reflection of how the Jews have moved from the margins of history to its mainstream.
Jewish Chronicle 15 September 2016