Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
At one point in my recent interviews with Israeli President Shimon Peres, I ask him why his mentor David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, in choosing among many promising young men of his circle, selected Peres as his aide. Perhaps motivated by modesty, the 87-year-old Peres doesn’t offer a clear explanation. But without doubt, the “old man,” as Ben-Gurion was often called, had spotted the youngster’s oratorical and intellectual brilliance, which has entranced world leaders, though not always the Israeli public.
At home, Peres’ persona was shrouded for decades in a pall of popular distrust. He lacked credibility among many Israelis—which explains, in part, his inability to win general and internal Labor Party elections. Rabin repeatedly beat him, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in contests for the Labor leadership. One result of the bad blood between the two was that Rabin called Peres an “indefatigable underminer” (hatran bilti nil’eh), a description Peres thought unjustified. But the charge stuck and thereafter shadowed his political career. Though the two men apparently worked well together during Rabin’s second premiership, in 1992-1995, when Peres served as foreign minister, Peres proved unable to shake off their troubled history. Rabin’s martyrdom reinforced what he had left behind as his legacy. Peres eventually, only on his second try, won the presidency—not by popular majority but by Knesset vote.
How deeply he believes in his oft-proclaimed vision of a “new Middle East” after a decade of disappointment and terror is anyone’s guess. The hard core of “Mr. Security” surely remains: Hamas rocketeers and Turkish “peace flotillas,” and, possibly, Iranian nuclear madmen need to be forcibly contained and faced down. Beneath his polished, world-weary exterior, he is still the ex-defense minister who believes that for a stable Israel, security concerns must take the highest priority and that any chance of peace is ultimately contingent on Israel’s strength, and he seems to carry considerable clout as adviser and elder statesman with the current brood of politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite his repeated failures to win election as prime minister, Peres is now a highly popular president, distanced from the daily toil of politics in the largely ceremonial head-of-state role, with a steady 78 percent public approval rating.
I interview Peres in his office, seated around a coffee table. He wears a suit and tie, about which he complains (“I meet diplomats all day”). His media adviser, Ayelet Frish, and her assistant sit with us throughout the two interviews, which were conducted in the Presidential Mansion in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh quarter in early July and lasted for approximately 80 minutes each. Ayelet occasionally interjects, “That’s off the record,” when she feels her boss has said something excessively revealing. I’m not sure he remembers that I had interviewed him in the past, when I worked at the Jerusalem Post in the 1980s and he was Israel’s foreign minister. I can clearly picture a briefing he gave to journalists accompanying him to Alexandria, where he was to visit Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Peres had sat in an armchair in the center of his hotel room, and the journalists were draped over assorted chairs or seated on the carpet. I remember that he was brilliant. A quarter of a century on, he appears more tired, his voice weaker; perhaps altogether not quite as sharp.
I ask him about the 1948 war, in which some 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of the area that became the Jewish state. (Over the past three decades, I have written extensively about the war, devoting three books to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1947-1949. Peres, as far as I know, has never publicly commented on my books—though I have sensed, over the years, a certain displeasure on his part with my findings, which many viewed as critical of Israel and Ben-Gurion.)
A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a handwritten letter from him praising a highly critical review I had written of a book by an anti-Israeli British historian. (At the start of our first interview earlier this month, Peres commented on my recent book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, saying it highlighted for him the failings of personal memory. But he did not elaborate.) The war ended with Israel having an Arab minority of some 160,000, representing 15-20 percent of its citizenry. Today, Israel’s Arab minority, 1.3 million strong, identify themselves as Palestinians, occasionally riot, and support Israel’s enemies during bouts of hostilities (as when Israel fought Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009).
Morris: Perhaps ending the 1948 war with this demographic was a mistake?
Peres: No, moral considerations took priority over demographic considerations. Ben-Gurion knew that every war and conflict takes place twice—once on the battlefield and then in the history books. He didn’t want things to be written in the history books that were in dissonance with the foundations of Judaism. He really believed that without a moral priority there is no existence for the Jewish people. To expel he saw as contrary to his moral values.
But in 1948 he sometimes gave orders to expel.
He did not give orders to expel.
I suggest that Ben-Gurion did in fact give such orders, as when, on July 12, 1948, he authorized the expulsion of Arab inhabitants of the towns of Lydda and Ramleh on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Peres shakes his head. “I remember sitting in the room, when the matter of the expulsion of the Arabs from Haifa began, when Ben-Gurion telephoned [Labor Party strongman, later Haifa mayor] Abba Khoushi and told him to do all he could to get the Arabs to stay [in Haifa]. I heard this myself. I was there.” (It is worth noting that the Arabs of Haifa were not expelled but fled the city at the end of April 1948, due in part to a decision of the local Arab leadership.)