Gone is Shimon Peres, but so is his era

During his long career, he was involved in the good, the bad and the ugly of Israel’s politics.

Israel''s President Shimon Peres [REUTERS]
He moved with the tides, adjusting as needed, writes Bell [Reuters]

Shimon Peres has passed away, but his era passed away before him. During his long career, the former Israeli president was involved in the good, the bad and the ugly of his country’s politics. He represented key moments in the establishment and expansion of Israel, from the development of its nuclear option to the Oslo accords.

He is a man with the inevitable contradictions of a long political career. As one example, he spread settlements “everywhere”, and then helped ensure the recognition of the PLO. Some see only sleight of the hand, and self-aggrandisement in such paradoxes.

Indeed, Peres was not Yitzhak Rabin (although we will never know who Rabin really was). Peres was not perceived as the committed peacemaker as much as a man of words and slogans, and he was not the architectonic statesman that his mentor Ben-Gurion was.

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Instead what was more at play was the simple opportunism of politics, a man who pursued the art of the possible whenever and wherever he found it, reflecting his times as they played out.

Bygone era

The larger point, however, is that Peres’ era may well now be gone. It ended with the failure of the Camp David talks, the second Intifada, and the passing of Yasser Arafat. The dynamics changed after all that, and both peoples reverted to type.

Palestinians turned back to steadfastness and their pemanent presence on the land, no matter the politics. Israelis to the innovation and inventiveness of Tel Aviv, the source of both cash and creativity, to a more ardent expansion into the West Bank and Jerusalem, the original Zionist project compounded, or simply to make a living.

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It had taken a long time for Israelis to come to terms with having to deal with the Palestinians as a fellow people, and Shimon Peres played a role in that regard. But, they have since gone in the other direction – the wall is the symbol of what Israelis think of the Palestinians today.

Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres share a laugh during a meeting in September 1999 [EPA]
Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres share a laugh during a meeting in September 1999 [EPA]

In the longer run, his role in the development of the nuclear programme may be even more defining. Because of the Iran deal, the Middle East is at relative rest from obsessing about the deadly combination of geopolitics and weapons of mass destruction, or WMD.

However, that deal has an end point, and before the 10 to 15 years are up, Israel and some Arab states will begin to wonder about Iran’s future intentions. There is room to diminish distrust before that time, but the shadow of nuclear and WMD proliferation in the region looms large.

Indeed, the undoing of much of Peres’ work, contradictions and all, may be what we are seeing today. The Oslo deal was not enough to create peace with the Palestinians. The settlement project won over peace by a country mile.

Similarly, the nuclear programme that has given Israel an unstated edge in the region may not provide that forever. Some countries already wonder “why only Israel, what about us?, and others may add, “if Iran, what about us”? That is a dangerous cascade.

Peres' mastery of the possible and of the 'day' may ... mark him as an important figure, because his country has also been defined, until now, by the possible and the practical.


Mastery of the possible

The answers lie in the development of regional security arranements including a Middle East free of WMD. But, for that, Israel needs to be freer of its ghosts, of its “eternal pessimism”, as Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, described it. It has to be ready to imagine a brighter future, a tall order in today’s Middle East.

Peres’ mastery of the possible and of the “day” may however mark him as an important figure, because his country has also been defined, until now, by the possible and the practical.

He moved with the tides, adjusting as needed, including, for example, by supporting Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

He over-reached late in life in his hope that the Middle East would one day be like the European Union, driven by economic integration, but those may be the musings of an older man rather than the practical moves of an active politician.

However, the era reflected in his actions may now be gone, as Israel moves away from the possible through its continued rule over the Palestinians. Even if it appears feasible today, the rule over another people and over a grand totem like Jerusalem, may not be so for long. Israel’s current honeymoon with the Gulf states, a reaction to Iran’s regional impulse, may also be a house built on shifting sands.

Shimon Peres [EPA]
Shimon Peres [EPA]

These politics are defined by new kinds of leaders, whether master tacticians such as Benjamin Netanyahu or those who clearly define their intentions, such as Naftali Bennett. It is however not an era of major or minor statesmen, like Ben-Gurion, Rabin or Peres.

Looking at his career, the easy conclusion may be to say that it has all been about Shimon Peres, that the many shifts in his career express no long-term vision nor principle, but only a self-serving parade of grasped opportunities.

However, he may have been more than that. He may have been the reflection of Israel at any one point in time – nuclear option, settlements, Oslo, Sharon and his wall.

And so, his death also reflects the moment and heralds a new era, one that may be more “impossible” and impracticable for Israel than the one that he had contributed to.

“Look to tomorrow, he taught us,” said Chemi Peres, Peres’ son.”

Look to tomorrow, indeed.

John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.