Israel has lost one of its finest sons

Shimon Peres never realised his vision of a new Middle East but his optimism never died


Shimon Peres, a symbol of hope and reconciliation in the Middle East, was a bundle of contradictions. Journalist Chemi Shalev aptly quotes Friedrich Nietzsche to sum up his long, rich life of ups and downs in politics – he lost as many elections as he won : “One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition that the soul does not relax, does not long for peace.” He has died at 93, active to the very end, telling schoolchildren only this year: “Don’t forget to be daring and curious and to dream big,”

In Israel the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in launching the Oslo peace process, who served as president, prime minister and foreign secretary, served 47 years in the Knesset, built Israel’s defence and nuclear industries, the architect of the settlement strategy who came to see them as an obstacle to peace, the hawk not averse to using military force who became a passionate advocate of reconciliation, was always, not least in his own eyes, an outsider, the insecure immigrant Pole who never lost his accent. Yitzhak Rabin branded him a “tireless schemer”, a reputation that followed him at home.

And in truth, until recently, he was admired more outside than inside his country, – only in the last few years as president did he begin to acquire the universal affection at home that he so longed for. Ironically, only after the deaths of the three other towering political figures of his generation, Moshe Dayan, Rabin and Ariel Sharon, at different times bitter rivals and allies.

Internationally he had long been widely admired, perhaps in part, as Shalev argues because “the man who was always depicted as a foreign entity miraculously metamorphosed into a poster boy for the Zionist entity.

He was the Israel that everyone wanted it to be, rather than the country that actually is.” But the heartfelt tributes yesterday from world leaders were also as much about a much- loved, brilliant warmhearted man – “my friend”, Barack Obama called him – as they were about the fact that Peres was not Bibi Netanyahu.

“I am a child of the generation that lost one world and went on to build another,” Peres once wrote of a 70-year career that spanned the establishment of Israel from the Holocaust to the present day.

He never realised his vision of a new Middle East built upon a 1993 interim peace deal he helped shape with the Palestinians, but his optimism never died. As US reform Jewish leader Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie recalled yesterday: “He told Diaspora Jews – and all who would listen – that Arabs were human beings and that moderates existed in Palestinian ranks. It was in Israel’s interests to search for peace, he told us, and eventually Palestinians and Arabs would see that it was in their interest as well.”

Israel and the whole Middle East has lost one of its finest sons.