Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.
Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, as Israelis say, halach l’olamo (has died), a Hebrew reference to death from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
There were other phrases from that biblical book which Mr. Peres would have recalled, words prime minister Yitzhak Rabin used in reluctantly accepting Mr. Peres’s vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. “To everything there is a season,” Mr. Rabin declared on the White House Lawn after signing the Oslo Agreement with Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat. “The time for peace has come.” The following year, all three would share the Nobel Peace Prize.
In some sense, Mr. Peres’s vision for peace reached too far and not far enough.
In putting forth the idea of a “new Middle East,” Mr. Peres pressed the idea of the mutual gains that can accrue from wide-ranging economic co-operation in a region racked by mutual suspicion. And the constructive ambiguity of the Oslo Agreement – the idea that the toughest topics: settlements, refugees and final borders – would be deferred to later rounds of negotiations arguably enabled the agreement to get signed.
But Mr. Peres would have also known that the vague deferrals in the Oslo Agreement also carried the seeds of its destruction. Two decades later, peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains elusive. Palestinian refugees have not been repatriated. Palestinians remain stateless. The separation barrier Israel erected in the West Bank has created a de facto and non-negotiated border while further impinging on Palestinian freedom of movement. New “facts on the ground” (Israeli political-speak for the building and expansion of settlements) have spread.
As the reflections on Mr. Peres’s life and legacy pour in, we will see at least four kinds. Some tributes will come from those who admire his role as would-be peacemaker. Others will criticize his role in the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians which took place in Israel’s founding war), his support for the early years of Israel’s West Bank settlement project, his role – as prime minister – in the 1996 Qana massacre where 106 Lebanese civilians were killed by artillery fired by the Israeli military on a UN compound, and from those who now view the “peace process” as a cynical ploy by Israel to entrench the status quo.
There will be those, on the other side, who view Mr. Peres’s peace moves as undermining Israeli security. And somewhere in between will be those who marvel at Mr. Peres’s tortoise-like ability to be the longest serving Israeli legislator, who held all five major posts (foreign minister, defence minister, finance minister, prime minister and president), despite never being considered a particularly charismatic politician, and despite being dogged by the fallout from a back room coalition scandal in 1990.
When I interviewed him in Jerusalem in 1999, we spoke about the effects of the intifada of the late eighties and early nineties, the grassroots Palestinian uprising characterized by general strikes, stones, slingshots and Molotov cocktails, which first thrust Palestinian peoplehood into mainstream Israeli consciousness. A soldier with a gun against a child is a lost cause, Mr. Peres told me.
In pushing for peace directly with the group that Palestinians held as their representatives – the PLO – rather than punting the “Palestinian problem” to Jordan, as his ideological rivals would have preferred, Mr. Peres was the first senior legislator to recognize Palestinian agency. If Mr. Peres has any specific political legacy, it will be one of dreamer who had enough political fortitude to start outlining the contours of change but not quite enough imagination – and domestic political support – to completely fill in those lines to bring forth full justice.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: