Shimon Peres was an optimist. Not somebody who believed that everything would be okay at the end of the day, but someone who trusted that if you do the right things, you can change a situation for the better. Not a daydreamer, not a detached visionary, but a shrewd politician who knew what he wanted and how to achieve it.
When I came to know him, it seemed to me obvious that he was a politician with an agenda, but it took me a while to understand that this was unusual. Today I can testify: Most politicians come to office simply in order to be there. When asked why, they say vague things about making their country better. But Peres was in politics for a reason: to ensure that his Israel was safe, both by creating the best means of deterrence and by promoting peaceful relations with our neighbors.
In his youth, Peres was considered a technocrat. He was a member of a generation born in the 1920s who were sick and tired of the Socialist ideology of David Ben-Gurion’s generation. They were proud of being pragmatic. When he was much older, he was portrayed as a dreamer or even as naive. In the 1960s, he was not ready to use the label “Social Democracy” in the Israeli Labor Party platform, but in 1978, he became the vice president of Socialist International.
In the 1970s, he was a staunch supporter of settlements in the occupied territories. Later, as the leader of the Labor Party and the opposition, he became very critical of these settlements and was perceived by many as a dove, and by a few as a traitor. Yigal Amir, the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, testified that his next target was to be Peres.
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In the 1990s, when I told Peres — I was his deputy in the foreign ministry at that time — about my secret efforts to negotiate an interim agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo, he could have easily told me that it was a rogue operation without his authorization. But instead he immediately hugged the embryonic idea and went to Rabin to get the green light to continue, because he believed that the project was in the Israeli national interest.
His attitude toward the country was different from mine. I was born in Israel a few weeks after its establishment; he was there at its cradle. For me, the military and economic achievements of my country, as its success at absorbing Jewish immigrants in a number twice the size of its original population in 1948, were a given. For him, everything was a kind of a miracle. If my love for Israel is the love of a son, his was the love of a father, who admires every move made by his child — including those that may not deserve this admiration objectively.
We had our differences. It was difficult for me to understand why he thought that the illegal settlements in the occupied territories could contribute to our security. I was very much against the Israeli Labor Party joining a government of Ariel Sharon — the settlements’ father — and refused to serve on it. But even during that bitter collision, I knew that it was not personal for him. He believed deeply then that joining the government, after Ehud Barak’s defeat, was the only way to save Israel from the kind of ultra-rightist government that we have today.
He was wiser than most people I know. He had a wonderful sense of humor, even about himself. He had a kind of self-assurance that was never smug but enabled him to take bold decisions, such as the economic plan of 1985, which saved Israel from out-of-control inflation, or the decision to leave Lebanon once we couldn’t find a Lebanese partner for an agreement. Ben-Gurion’s grandson once told me that he thought that his grandfather was the most important Israeli leader, but that Peres was the best prime minister, because he was both a visionary and an executive who knew how to achieve his goals. He was right.
Shimon Peres led a full life of achievements, despite the many difficulties he faced, and became the most famous Israeli in the world.
A short time before becoming president, he visited New York. One evening, as he entered a Broadway theater to see a show with friends, there was a standing ovation. At first, he didn’t understand what was happening, thinking the audience was applauding the actors, even though the show hadn’t started. Then he understood that the people stood for him. Shimon Peres, “Mr. Security,” the Israeli patriot who believed in peace, surely deserved it.
Yossi Beilin was a member of the Israeli cabinet under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.
© 2016, The Washington Post