Shimon Peres's Real Victory

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli President, died at ninety-three, a revered elder statesman, but his glory days were as part of a suspect young guard. In the early fifties, he was part of a cadre of defense officials whom David Ben-Gurion promoted in order to wrest control of the economy from veteran leaders of the Zionist Labor Federation and hand it to the fledgling state. Peres was at first hawkish, in favor of nuclear deterrence against Arab invasion and retaliation against Palestinian border attacks. He ended his career as a symbol of the peace process, after secretly initiating and championing the 1993 Oslo Accords, for which he and his co-signers, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize. “If I’ve changed my policies, it’s because the situation has changed. I was a hawk, but when we could make peace I was a dove,” he told David Remnick, in 2002.

For his seventy years of public life, Peres was famous as a man who tempered his views to accommodate shifts in political power. He held almost every important government post—Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, President—and served people he both idolized and reviled. After the Oslo negotiations stalled, and during the darkest days of the Second Intifada, Peres assumed his last significant position, as Ariel Sharon’s Foreign Minister, and stayed even after Sharon put Arafat under siege. Yossi Beilin, an Oslo negotiator and a protégé of Peres, was not impressed: of Sharon, he said, in 2002, “To do what he is doing now, he needs a rabbi to make it all kosher.” Beilin added, “In Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon got the most kosher rabbi in the world.”

Yet it would be wrong to suppose that Peres lacked governing principles. What set him apart, and prepared him for a short but pivotal premiership from 1984 to 1986, was political-economic prescience. Early on, he was a builder of Israel’s military power, becoming an expert on increasingly sophisticated arms. He grew fascinated by advanced technologies and, more important, the kind of society that advances them. In many ways, Israel’s entrepreneurial burst in the nineties was facilitated by Peres’s economic reforms of the eighties. It is no diminution of his achievement to say that he was Israel’s first technocrat. “The Arabs have the numerical superiority; we have technological superiority,” he told a cluster of reporters in 1974, while he was the Minister of Communications. “Technology will always defeat numbers.”

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