Shimon Peres: Israel’s Last
By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
September 28, 2016
Shimon Peres was on the line,
irate. The Jerusalem Post, of which I was then the editor, had published a
front-page story on a government bill without, he said, reporting on what he, as
leader of the opposition, had to say on the matter. So scalding was the rebuke
that it was all I could do to mumble that he was mistaken. We had quoted him
extensively—after the jump.
“The inside pages. The article
was too long to run on the front page.”
“I see. I’ll look.”
Two days later a letter arrived in
the mail. It was Peres, writing to apologize. I have kept it ever since, not
just as a memento from a historic figure, but also as a reminder that great
power ought never to elevate anyone above small decencies. Shimon
Peres—Israel’s president, two-time prime minister, three-time foreign
minister, Nobel Peace Laureate, and last surviving founding father until his
death Wednesday at 93—was first of all a mensch.
Not that he lacked for ego,
ambition and a talent for political maneuver. Born Szymon Perski in what is now
Belarus, he came to Mandatory Palestine as a boy in 1934. By his early 20s he
had caught the eye of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime
minister, who delegated one task after another to his brilliant protégé. Peres
helped found Israel’s Navy, established the Israeli arms-maker Rafael(today
the maker of the Iron Dome air defense system), forged a strategic military
partnership with France, and arranged the construction of Israel’s first
nuclear reactor—all by age 40. Had he been an American, he would have been Henry
Kissinger, Henry Stimson and Henry Kaiser rolled into one.
The scope of his achievements was
in keeping with Zionism’s first commandment: “If you will it, it is no
dream.” As minister of defense in the mid-1970s, he urged a reluctant Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin to order the daring rescue of Israeli hostages
at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, proving that a courageous democracy could
defeat terror. A decade later, as prime minister, he worked with U.S. Secretary
of State George Shultz to rescue Israel’s economy from
hyperinflation—while also rescuing thousands of Ethiopian Jews from
persecution and starvation under the Communist Mengistu regime. For good
measure, he also helped lay the groundwork to turn Israel into the high-tech,
startup culture for which it is now known.
His biggest dream was peace with
Israel’s Arab neighbors. The end of the Cold War gave Peres what he thought
was a historic opening with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation
Organization, which had lost its Soviet patron. But while Peres was eager to go
from hawk to dove, Arafat could not rise from terrorist to statesman. The 1993
Oslo Accords for which the two men shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin
collapsed in a wave of suicide bombings at the turn of the millennium.
For a while, Peres was one of the
most reviled personalities in Israel. In 2007 he was elevated to Israel’s
symbolic presidency, partly to honor him, partly to neutralize him politically.
He left the office a revered figure.
And he never lost his optimism. In
2002 I sat next to him on a long flight from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv. He was
reading historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s history of food. I listened
intently to him wax philosophically on agriculture, then nanotechnology, then a
plan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea. He wanted only to
talk about the future, not the past. He was nearly 80 at the time, still
dreaming big. His legacy is that his country is, too.