Former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres spent the first half of his life building up Israel’s military might and the second half trying to forge peace deals with its neighbors. He had a lot more success with the former than with the latter — and his death is a sad reminder that the prospects for peace are more remote now than ever before.
Peres, who died Tuesday at age 93, was the last of the generation of men and women who founded Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His life and career spanned the entire history of the state, and he worked closely with a remarkable range of Israeli leaders, from David Ben Gurion, one of the founders of the Israeli state, in the 1950s to Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and, uncomfortably, with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2000s.
It will be tempting, as messages of condolence flow in from around the world, to see Peres’s death as a giant loss for the Israeli left and as a genuine setback for efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute.
That isn't a false narrative, but it's an incomplete one. Peres hasn't played an active role in Israeli politics for more than a decade; his last formal job, as president, was a purely ceremonial one. He knew how to command media attention and tried to publicly push Netanyahu to resume serious peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians, but the hard-line Israeli leader largely ignored him.
It is right and proper to mourn the sudden passing of Peres, an idealist and an honorable man in a political system routinely marred by high-level corruption. But don't mourn his passing as a sudden, fatal blow to the peacemaking efforts he championed. Those have been dead for quite some time.
How “Mr. Security” became a man of peace
Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the landmark Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. It solidified his standing as the de facto head of the Israeli left. It also marked one of the most remarkable transformations in Israeli political history.
For most of his life, Peres had been known as a hawk. In the 1950s, with Ben Gurion’s blessing, he worked with France to establish Israel's nuclear program. Jerusalem has never formally confirmed that it has nuclear weapons, but it is widely believed to have one of the biggest arsenals in the world.
It is now the Middle East’s only nuclear power, and Peres — like every Israeli leader who has followed him — believed the weapons would give the Jewish state the most powerful form of deterrent. (Later in his life, Peres was accused of trying to help Israel sell nuclear weapons to apartheid-era South Africa, a charge he and other Israeli leaders vigorously denied.)
Ironically, Peres played a key role in building the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that he would later come to see as obstacles in peace. As former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin wrote in a perceptive Foreign Policy article in 2014, Peres was known as “Mr. Security” because of his close ties to Israel’s military establishment and fierce opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Peres also pushed for building settlements that would stretch from the Sinai Peninsula up to Israel’s border with Jordan. Beilin quotes Peres’s logic: The settlements would serve “as the roots and the eyes of Israel.”
Over time, though, his views — like those of many Israelis — began to shift. He came to believe that many, if not all, of the Israeli settlements would have to be evacuated from the West Bank so it could become the heart of a future Palestinian state. He believed in dividing and sharing Jerusalem.
To the consternation of the right wing, he also saw Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a viable negotiating partner. More than anything else, he believed in the prospects of a peace deal that would end a decades-long conflict and herald what he optimistically called “the new Middle East.”
The hard truth is that the new Middle East looks a lot like the old one
Today, those dreams are in tatters. Successive waves of Palestinian suicide bombings in the 1990s and early 2000s killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and left much of the Israeli public skeptical that a peace deal would ever be reached. A Pew research poll earlier this year found that just 43 percent of Israeli Jews think “a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully” and that 48 percent agree or strongly agree that Arabs should be expelled from the country.
The survey also showed just how far Peres’s views had come to diverge from those of average Israelis. Just 8 percent of the respondents described themselves as members of the political left; fully 37 percent said they identified with the right wing.
The numbers were even more dispiriting for those sharing Peres’s view that settlements are an obstacle to peace: 42 percent of Israeli Jews say they help Israel’s security, while just 30 percent say they harm it. (The remainder say they don’t make a substantive difference.)
Israel’s steady move to the right under Netanyahu made the last years of Peres’s life difficult ones. He remained enormously popular overseas — Bono paused a U2 concert in Toronto in July 2015 to publicly salute Peres, who was in the audience — but became less and less influential at home.
One month after the U2 show, Peres told a high-level security conference in Israel that Jerusalem needed to return to the negotiating table to prevent Israel from becoming isolated internationally and “eaten demographically” because of its growing Arab population.
"If we do not start negotiating, Israel could become an Arab state.” he said. “This would be the end of the dream of a Jewish and democratic state."
Peres also praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said both Israelis and Palestinians needed to negotiate “without preconditions.”
That, to put it generously, hasn’t happened. Netanyahu has ignored President Barack Obama’s push for a settlement freeze; the Associated Press reported recently that work on 12,288 new housing units has started since Obama took office, including 1,195 in the first six months of 2016 alone. At that pace, almost as much construction will have taken place in the West Bank under Obama as had occurred under President George W. Bush.
At last week’s United Nations General Assembly, Abbas accused Israel of committing numerous “atrocities” against his people, including destroying Palestinian homes and continuing to seize Palestinian land.
Abbas said he’d push for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and said, “We hope no one will cast a veto.” Washington has blocked such measures in the past, and it’s unclear that Obama — despite his chilly relationship with Netanyahu — would let one through this time around.
Netanyahu, for his part, told the diplomats that Jerusalem would reject a potential US effort to push through a Security Council resolution laying out so-called “parameters” for a final status deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
That’s precisely the kind of peace deal Peres had been pushing for, unsuccessfully, for the final decades of his life. He lived a long and productive life, helping to build Israel into a stable democracy with a flourishing economy and arguably the most powerful military in the Middle East. His dream of an Israel living peacefully alongside a Palestinian state remains unfulfilled. It’s hard to see it coming true anytime soon.