There are very few things these days — if any — that Israelis can agree upon. But the collective mourning over Shimon Peres’s death appears to be one of them.
Much of the public grief has undoubtedly been because Peres, who served as president and prime minister and held nearly every senior cabinet position, contributed immensely to the creation, survival and prosperity of Israel; his eight-decade political career spanned the entire life of the young Jewish state. But there is also another, more personal reason, for Israelis to feel sorrow Friday as he is brought to his final resting place in a grand state funeral: Peres was the last of the country’s generation of founding fathers. When he died, he took with him a vital part of our national past — the part that could still look bravely into the future.
Peres has been loved by almost all Israelis some of the time, and loathed by some nearly all of the time. A chief engineer of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and constant voice for dialogue with the Palestinians ever since, he has been called a dreamer, a visionary and a cockeyed optimist while simultaneously being disparaged as naive, misguided, even delusional. Yet the one thing that his admirers and detractors alike would probably concede is that Peres, like the rest of the founding generation of which he was the last relic, possessed a rare quality ever more absent among the current class of Israeli statesmen: political imagination.
Three years ago, Peres, then Israel’s president, celebrated his 90th birthday. The event, incorporated into an annual presidential conference, was dubbed “Facing Tomorrow.” It was a most fitting theme (albeit unorthodox for a nonagenarian) that reflected more than anything Peres’s fundamental understanding of politics as a force for perpetual, and uncompromising, change.
It is almost unimaginable to recall that only 68 years ago, when Peres was just starting out in politics, Israel, now heralded as a miraculous “Start-Up Nation” was, well, barely starting up. But Peres and his political cohorts, instilled with the visionary — some would argue utopian — penchant of early Zionist thinkers immortalized in Theodor Herzl’s inspirational line “if you will it, it is no dream,” set out to change that. Much like the American founding fathers, the Israeli founders, led by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (an early mentor and lifelong friend of Peres), undertook an immensely complex, ambitious and arduous project of state-building aimed at taming a frontier and establishing durable political, economic and social institutions that could stand the test of time and overcome a host of threats.
As head of the inchoate Ministry of Defense in the early 1950s, he foresaw the strategic value of air power and helped establish Israel’s air force, which ever since the Six-Day War in 1967 has provided the country’s military edge over its enemies. He would go on to pioneer Israel’s world-famous defense and armament industry and father its still not fully disclosed nuclear program. As minister of defense in 1976, he gave the green light for the daring Entebbe raid that remains one of the most imaginative hostage rescue operations ever successfully attempted. As prime minister in the 1980s, Peres overcame crippling hyperinflation, enacting an unprecedented economic stabilization plan and putting in structural market reforms. These broke the decades-long reigns of an increasingly unsustainable welfare state and helped Israel transition to the competitive, globally oriented technology-based postindustrial economy it has today. Even in his ceremonial role as president in recent years, he devoted much of his time to promoting Israel’s tech sector. While others his age were retiring into the comfort of nostalgia and cataloging their memories, Peres was too busy making new ones by touring Silicon Valley, befriending Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to promote peace through social media, and never missing a chance to learn about scientific innovation.
But of course, Peres’s boldest — and still most controversial — political vision had to do with the Palestinian conflict. In the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he oversaw as foreign minister, Peres often touted what he called the “New Middle East.” Although he was mocked for his naivete, what lay behind his belief that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be resolved was much more than wishful thinking. The accords were a prime example of the type of political imagination that contemporary Israelis so lack. Taking account of the seismic geopolitical shifts at the end of the Cold War, Israel sought to harvest the benefits of what then-President George H.W. Bush famously called “the New World Order” to pursue peace with its neighbors. This was essentially a calculated risk: Having established its military, political and economic dominance in the Middle East, Israel sought to leverage the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War to make peace on its own terms. Admirable in its intentions, Peres’s deal proved to be a premature, overambitious and highly flawed attempt to use the power of politics to alter history.
When asked in one interview what was the “stuff” from which he was made, Peres replied: “I am made of the future.” At a time when many Israeli leaders are increasingly living in the past, his legacy is now more important than ever. Most politicians in Israel these days, from both sides of the political aisle, are not excited about history as much as they are traumatized by it. The sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors or of parents who watched it unfold from afar, they are haunted by the past and have allowed their sense of victimhood to overshadow their sense of possibility. That is why they don’t dare to imagine anymore, let alone dream.
Ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-forgotten Bar-Ilan peace initiative in 2009, most alternative diplomatic proposals introduced by Israeli opposition leaders have pretty much amounted to more of the same: Overcautious in aims, purposely vague on details and low in expectations, they often rehash older proposals (like the 2002 Saudi plan) without attempting to think big and envision comprehensive creative solutions that might work in a post-Arab Spring Middle East.
This attitude was depressingly on display just last week in New York, when Netanyahu used most of his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to excoriate the member states for their treatment of Israel and to castigate Palestinians for being “trapped in the past” — never mind that he himself never bothered to provide any alternative blueprint for a better future. Ironically, it is Netanyahu who constantly employs history to justify present inactions — for example, claiming that the Palestinian grand mufti inspired the Holocaust or comparing the Iran deal to appeasing Nazi Germany. Having succumbed to the bleak conclusion that mutual malice and distrust are inevitable, he has adopted a fatalistic outlook that seeks to reinforce stasis and preserve the status quo rather than ever challenge it.
Peres didn’t fear history. He embraced it. In his eyes, the future was not a source of dread but of opportunity and wonder. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong — and yes, he was often wrong — at least he did something to try to improve it. “The future belongs to those willing to take risks,” he liked to say. Israel today is, in some respects, the product of those very risks that he and his generation were willing to take. With his passing, Israelis are left to wonder how to move forward when most of their leaders keep trying to hold them back.