In all of the millions of words being written and spoken about Shimon Peres, many focus on his legacy as a peacemaker. This is entirely proper; Peres was one of the main architects and drivers of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, and also of Israel’s efforts to make peace with many of its Arab neighbours, over the course of many decades.
Still more is being written about Peres’s role in forging the remarkable defence capabilities of Israel, particularly in its earliest days when it faced considerable danger from the Arab states. It is not too much to say that Shimon Peres was one of the main architects of Israel’s conventional defence capability and also of its alleged nuclear weapons program.
Much is made of the dichotomy between these two efforts. Indeed, one sometimes hears analyses of the Peres legacy that split his career into two neat compartments; hawk at first, and then dove towards the end.
This analysis is superficially satisfying, but highly simplistic. It is far more accurate to see Peres’s work on both fronts, war and peace, as part of a single continuous effort to secure the Jewish state — or at least Peres’s vision of Israel as a secular, democratic, Jewish state.
For Peres, peace with the Palestinians and the Arab neighbours was never a contradiction to preparations for war. Indeed, he (and most who participated in the founding of Israel) viewed Israel’s military prowess as the essential precondition to its ability to make peace. Moreover, Peres recognized that Israel desperately needed to shed the occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967 if it were to survive as he, and the other founders had originally conceived it — a “secular Jewish” democracy.
Peres came to realize sooner than most that retention of the West Bank, and the encouragement of settlement there by religious Jews in the service of their ideological goal, threatened Israel with a cancer that could destroy it from within. Simply put, the need to rule over an angry and growing Palestinian population has confronted Israel with the need to permanently suppress their rights if Jews are to retain political power; Israel cannot allow the Palestinians under occupation political rights or they will overwhelm the Jewish vote. The settler project has also injected into Israeli politics a growing messianic, intolerant religious fervour that threatens the character of the country as a pluralistic democracy.
Peres knew that both of these developments threatened the long-term future of Israel as a secular, democratic, Jewish country.
It can thus be said that Peres’s legacy is mixed. He succeeded beyond any doubt in his first effort to secure Israel (creating a regional military superpower), but did not live to see the fruition of the second (the peace that strength should have bought). Indeed, that goal now seems more precarious than ever. And Peres himself bears at least part of the blame for this; he participated in, and even led governments that allowed and then encouraged the settler project, only realizing too late the danger that it represents to Israel. It is to Peres’s credit that he became one of the first major Israeli political figures to advocate a change of course, but he was not able to pull it off.
Shimon Peres was perhaps the last of a small band of remarkable leaders who created and then secured their vision of Israel against enormous odds in its earliest days. He then saw clearly, before most, that Israel’s military might must be put to the service of making peace if the country were to survive over the long term. But he failed in his own lifetime to tame the demons that he had helped to unleash — extremists bent on destroying the secular democracy he had laboured his whole life to build.