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Shimon Peres, 1923-2016

When all is said and done, who was Shimon Peres?

It’s really not an easy answer.

His many eulogists have said a great deal about the man, virtually all of it complimentary but much of it contradictory.

He was both a man of peace and a man of war, they said, both a true man of the people and the ultimate political animal.

All true.

Peres was, at least on the surface, a man of contradictions, a walking and talking paradox — a complexity.

But there is, in the 93-year lifeline of this remarkable individual, a strong and detectable theme, a consistent thread that may have manifested itself in various ways but always remained true to a central idea.

In the early stages of his political career, Peres was undeniably a hawk.

He supported the idea of Jewish settlements on land captured from Jordan after the Six Day War. He played a leading role in Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. He was far from sympathetic to the point of view that came to be known as the Palestinian cause.

In the latter stages of his political career, however, Peres was undeniably a dove.

Not only did he become sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he — along with his longtime rival and colleague Yitzhak Rabin — became an ardent advocate of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, principally through what came to be known as the two-state solution.

In his post-political career, as Israel’s president, Peres went further. Not only did he continue to push for the two-state solution, he became almost a super-dove, an eloquent statesman who advocated peaceful solutions to a wide array of international conflicts.

It wasn’t accidental that one of his eulogists last week channeled the lyrics of John Lennon’s peace anthem “Imagine.”

Peres paid for taking such stances. When he was a hawk, Israeli liberals detested him, as did many Palestinian leaders who never forgave him. Relatively few showed up for his funeral, indicating that Peres’ later pro-peace work was insufficient atonement in their eyes.

When he was a dove, the conservatives vilified him. His support of the Oslo Accords, one of several generous and ultimately futile Israeli peace offers, earned him the heartfelt acrimony of many Israeli and Jewish right-wingers, especially the settlers he had once championed.

To all appearances, such opposition never seriously fazed Peres. He was thick-skinned and resolute throughout his life, capable of recovering his bearings after professional setbacks — the ultimate political survivor. He was also keenly tuned in to Israel’s social zeitgeist, good at sniffing the political winds and charting effective courses.

He may never have won Israel’s prime minister position by popular vote, as his critics have repeatedly said recently, but he was seldom very far from the center of political power in Israel. His opponents never succeeded in isolating or marginalizing him.

That political viability confers a certain cynical sheen to Peres’ biography, implying that perhaps he was more a pragmatist than a man of true convictions. We don’t think so.

Peres the hawk believed that Jewish settlements helped provide a necessary buffer against Israel’s hostile Arab neighbors. Many Israelis today continue to believe that very thing.

Ultimately, Peres changed his mind on the issue, just as many Israelis have come to rethink the original justification for settlements.

Peres the hawk also believed that Israel needed nuclear weapons as a last resort measure of survival. Can any serious supporter of Israel argue with that idea today, especially when considering the hostile intentions and actions of Iran?

Peres the dove believed that Israel is in desperate need of peace, that for its long-term welfare and survival it has no choice but to come to some sort of long term accommodation with the Palestinian people.

Objectively, there are very few Israelis today, whether hailing from the left or the right, who fundamentally disagree with that. There are certainly widely varying approaches to how to achieve that elusive peace, but only a few believe that the problem can be wished away by neglect or forced into submission by military might.

Hence, the central theme of Peres’ life and career was his concern for Israel’s safety and survival. That remained consistent from start to finish.

If Israel’s survival equated with nuclear capability and, at one point, Jewish settlements, then he would support such measures. If it meant peace and accommodation, then he would be behind them.

Such convictions only seem contradictory at first glance. Ultimately, nothing is ever simple in the Middle East, and certainly not in Israel.

Neither was Shimon Peres.

In that sense, he was far more than just a founder and a leader of the Jewish state. He was also its mirror.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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