By David K. Shipler
Shimon Peres has been lionized since his death this week, but the praise has obscured at least two of his grave errors, which damaged Israel’s options for peace with the Palestinians. One was his early support for Jewish settlements in territories captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war. The other was his unwillingness to call snap elections after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. These two miscalculations, which went unreported in The New York Times obituary, have had lasting effect, and not to the good.
Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, had a long list of accomplishments to his name. He was instrumental in obtaining weapons for Israel before the United States became its chief benefactor, and in getting the materials necessary for the country to develop nuclear weapons. He served in multiple posts, including defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister, and finally president. He philosophized eloquently.
Most important, his aides secretly negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization a loose agreement known as the Oslo accords, which led to the PLO’s and Israel’s mutual recognition and opened a way to peaceful coexistence. Peres, Rabin, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded too hastily as it turned out. Ultimately, the Oslo process was violently derailed by extremists on both sides. Ironically, Peres’s mistakes were partly responsible.
Decades before, by facilitating Jewish settlement in occupied lands, he had inadvertently helped give a foothold to a movement that became a zealous force of religio-nationalism, one that today brooks no compromise with the Palestinians. The movement, whose adherents now occupy cabinet positions in the government, reveres the ancient biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria—known to the rest of the world as the West Bank of the Jordan River—captured from Jordan in 1967 and the logical place for a Palestinian state, were it ever to be created. Jews have a historical right to be there, the religio-nationalists argue. And they are there, with some among them committing daily vandalism and vigilantism against Palestinians.
Peres, who has been called visionary, did not have the vision to see clearly where the settlement concept could lead. If you want to keep your options open for relinquishing captured land someday, the last thing you do is to create homes there for your civilians, who will put down roots and consider themselves the owners.
The Jewish settlements first supported by the Labor Party in the West Bank were mostly secular: farms in the Jordan Valley, commuter towns within reach of Israel proper. But religio-nationalists participated as well, and Labor acquiesced step by step to their demands. Little by little, Peres and his colleagues were allowing the growing of an Israeli constituency that made territorial compromise more and more difficult. Without seeming to recognize what they were doing, they were gradually closing the door. Only belatedly did Peres come to oppose settlements.
His second serious miscalculation came after Rabin was shot dead, as he left a peace rally, by an activist who drew ideological sustenance from the religious right then opposing the Oslo peace process. Peres became acting prime minister and could have called immediate elections, which he probably would have won by riding on the swell of grief and outrage that followed Rabin’s death.
His likely opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the opposition Likud party, was widely blamed for having helped stoke the hatred of Rabin, who had been called a traitor and a Nazi at demonstrations Netanyahu attended. A poll taken in the emotional aftermath of the shooting showed Netanyahu losing to Peres by 30 points. “Winning an election would give Peres four full years to complete a final accord with the Palestinians and negotiate a peace deal with Syria. The region would be transformed,” writes Dan Ephron in Killing a King, his gripping book on the Rabin assassination.
Yossi Beilin, Peres’s aide who had organized the Oslo talks, had just completed a draft of a full peace agreement with Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, Ephron reports. “Now he was suggesting that Peres win a mandate of his own in a snap election and then wrap up the Palestinian track quickly. The longer he waited, the more time opponents on both sides would have to undermine the process with violence, he said.”
But Peres vacillated. And in the end, he made the fateful decision to wait and simply serve out the last remaining year of Rabin’s term, then stand for election. Peres did not want to win on the back of Rabin’s assassination, according to Ephron. The longstanding rivalry between the two men had not died with Rabin. Never having won a national election on his own, Peres wanted to do so then.
In ensuing months, however, Palestinian militants bent on torpedoing the peace process launched vicious terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Popular support for compromise with the PLO eroded, and as the political tide turned, Peres finally called new elections after seven months. It was too late. He lost to Netanyahu, and the peace process went dormant, as it has remained for twenty years.
Could Peres have completed a deal? Long regarded by many Israelis (somewhat unfairly) as shifty, insincere, and out of touch, could Peres have inspired his country to take the risks necessary for compromise? Would Arafat have suddenly grown from a hardened revolutionary into a responsible leader? Could he have morphed into a visionary himself to mobilize his people into a spirit reconciliation?
It sounds improbable. But as Peres himself once said, “He who has despaired from peace is the one hallucinating. Whoever gives in and stops seeking peace—he is naïve.”