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      Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace

      Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace
      Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

      Middle East

      Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace

      By Noah Kulwin

      Though Israel was founded less than 70 years ago, there aren't any "founding fathers" left alive. And now the next closest thing to being one of Israel's original patriarchs, ex-president and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, has died at the age of 93.

      Reflecting on Peres's death is like reflecting on the Israeli state as a whole. He was mentored by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and he was part of Mapai, the forerunner of today's Israeli Labor party and the dominant political power through Israel's first two decades.

      Peres's legacy is complicated. He began his career in Israel's Ministry of Defense and then became something of a dove later in life, opposing the construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, before moving to the political center.

      According to the International Crisis Group's Israel-Palestine analyst Ofer Zalzberg, the conventional story about Peres, in Israel and among the global elite eulogizing him today, "leaves out two big things."

      "It leaves out the transformation that he went through from the '70s, when he supported settlements and he was a hawk," Zalzberg said. "But by the 90s he was looking for ways to dismantle the settlements. Even in glossing over [Peres's history], you have to shed light on his transformation."

      The latter part of Peres's career — quasi-peacenik, pro-two state solution, elder statesman — traditionally made him a figure of admiration on the center and center-left. But Zalzberg says that "you see now in more settler newspapers, more acknowledgement of his role initially when Mapai supported the settlements, the nuclear program, furthering relations with France."

      For most politicians, supporting negotiations with the Palestinians effectively ended the higher aspirations of many centrist and left-leaning figures — whether by bullet (Rabin) or ballot box (Barak, Livni). For Peres, who helped negotiate the Oslo Accords — they formally created an official Palestinian government — in the early 1990s, however, things turned out differently.

      Though Israelis largely soured on peace negotiations after Oslo, instead favoring the more militant, pro-settler politics of the center-right, Peres grew from being a "divisive" politician (in Zalzberg's words) to taking on a "father-figure" sort of role.

      "This dissonance comes from the fact that they respected him as a leader, and disagreed with him/ on this issue," Zalzberg said. "They accepted it because he had some sort of founding role in creating the State of Israel as a successful operation. They're able to live with this dissonance for that simple fact."

      After abandoning Labor for the centrist Kadima party in the mid-2000s, Peres was appointed to the ceremonial role of President in 2007, which he held until 2014. And by then, his politics appeared to harden around the edges.

      "He never criticized the fact that there are Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and he didn't take the Obama view that Gilo [a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem] is a settlement," Zalzberg said. "He did not fully endorse the international view on settlements, he was very much part of the Israeli consensus [by then]."

      But as president, Peres didn't really dwell on the peace process, instead turning his attention to innovation in Israel's burgeoning tech sector and developing the country's arid and poor southern region, the Negev Desert. Peres "believed in both, but saw that he could only do one."

      "He was interested in tech, making the [Negev] desert bloom — which he'd been interested in 50 years," Zalzberg said. "But at some point... he increasingly realized that unless he could make himself heard, there was little he could do concretely for peace, so he dedicated his time to questions of innovation."

      And by not talking about the Palestinians or ending the occupation of the West Bank, Peres made himself beloved. Recent surveys showed Peres to be one of the most popular people in public life in Israel, with a 77 percent satisfaction rating, even though polling data show that in recent years, Israelis have considered the Accords to have "hurt" Israel more than they helped.

      As for what tangibly remains of Peres's legacy, most well-known is his namesake organization, the Tel Aviv-based Peres Center for Peace, which is committed to both a two-state solution and to the peace process.

      Most of Israel, however, disagrees. Though 59 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution, only 43 percent agree with the terms that have been set by previous negotiations — terms that Peres, perhaps more than any other, was involved in setting.

      Topics: shimon peres, israel, middle east


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