Shimon Peres lives on the 12th floor of a block overlooking the sea in a suburb of Tel Aviv. A single soldier sits at a desk outside. The view from the apartment is terrific as evening comes, the shutters are opened and a great red sun starts to go down over the sea and the series of great apartment blocks staked out in rows towards it. But the apartment itself, despite some modern art, is that of a middle-class bookish man. It might be in Bonn, for example. Modest, like everything in Israel (except Weizmann’s).
Mrs. Peres serves strawberries, cheese, grapefruit juice, tea on request, and H. is actually offered a Scotch at 5 p.m. (He accepts it at 5.30.)
Also present, the biographer of Ben-Gurion, Shuptai Teket [ed.: Shabtai Tevet], an immensely talkative man who rather hogs the conversation, albeit interestingly, on the subject of Ben-Gurion at first, later on Proust, No Man’s Land, my books, in fact all our subjects. You know the type. Peres talks less as a result but nevertheless gives the impression of a highly cultured and really well-read man. He is also sensitive and attractive in manner. From the traumatic death of Ben-Gurion’s mother, the conversation turns to the greatness of the war-leader in the nation’s consciousness which, says Peres, can never be equaled by that of the peace-time leader. Shuptai disagrees vociferously.
Peres: “Yes, but the ‘peace-leader’ offers nothing but dealing with economic problems…”
We all cite leaders’ names feverishly without shaking him. I try Mr. Gladstone but without success. There is some resignation in Peres when he says this, melancholy. I wonder if he is aware in himself of this lack? But he is a well-read man, rushing to Blake’s Life of Disraeli for the figures of the 1834 franchise when Disraeli was elected—to prove how tiny the power base was—and finding them.
Other topics—Peter Brook and his equation of the theatre and politics which H. denounces. It is an agreeable and civilized interlude, fully justifying George Weidenfeld’s description of him in our introduction, as a man he hopes will soon lead Israel again (for his civilized personality). Then Ina comes to fetch us.
H. is enchanted to hear the dialogue which follows:
Later, Ina: “We knew each other well once, I worked for Shimon.”
Later David Samuel refers to Ina’s work too.
H.: “For the Foreign Office?”
David laughs: “That sort of thing. The same line of country.”
It is obvious to our excited imaginations that Ina has been a spy!
This is real le Carré country.
Sunday. “Shabbat,” murmurs H. somewhat inaccurately, and makes my breakfast as he does at home.
I potter and gaze at the Old City walls in the afternoon, of what turns out to be quite a fresh if hot day (no more Khamsin and you feel the difference). H. is interviewed for about two hours by the literary editor of the Jerusalem Post—one Matthew Nesvisky—in the quiet of the King David bar. I read by the pool, including a paperback life of Begin bought at the hotel bookstore, for as I am buying My Life by Golda Meir, I suddenly realize that Begin is the one I don’t know about and I can’t exercise a boycott over useful knowledge. I’m rewarded not just by a good book (it’s by two journalists) which would be too much to ask nor by a blinding revelation proving Begin to be much misunderstood. But by more understanding on my own part. It’s as if an ex-head of the Provo IRA became PM of a United Ireland—a cause in which we all believe, but how could one get over the past of brutal violence and murder? One wouldn’t. So they don’t get over Begin and the Irgun here.
Yet at least one remark of his strikes home: roughly quoted, “Why do they call me a terrorist—not that I mind, I disdain them—and Arafat a guerrilla?” H. finds Nesvisky agreeable and stays some time, although he later has cold feet about an interview of which he cannot see a transcript. “I’m afraid of looseness, he didn’t have a tape recorder, he may write loosely, indeed I may have spoken loosely…” (These fears show H.’s intuition. The interview was a trite pastiche of what he said.) Understandable fears on the part of H.’s general dislike of looseness, lack of economy I suppose, in language. Yet it is a measure of H.’s serious approach to this place, approval if you like, that he agreed in his mind to give this interview before the man wrote.
Later we sit outside on a perfect evening as a full moon is gradually defined in the sky, and the shimmering sea-like effect of the desert beyond is lost. In the end the moon is very strong indeed. But the walls do not lose their own strength. When Peter Halban brings us the Mishkenot Visitors’ Book, I am as a result moved to make some allusion to Napoleon at the Pyramids, to the French soldiers, and centuries of history looking down. For I do feel that these clean bright old walls are looking at me and have done so for two weeks.
But H. writes with simplicity: “Thank you! Wonderful.”
We both note other contributions, such as a pretentious meander from John Vaizey (signed typically “Vaizey of Greenwich”) about interpreting Israel to the world. The signatures of Nathalie Sarraute, Irwin Shaw, and musicians.
The evening at David and Dorothy Harman’s is quite American in flavor, the deposition of the buffet, long drinking-time. Many of the guests are American and I myself am not convinced the Harmans will in the end settle here. They’re such a Cambridge, Mass., young couple! And Dorothy already fears Israeli aggression acting on her five-year-old son, quite apart from Arab aggression. David explains the terrible rift in Israeli education between secular and religious (70%:30%) which makes a great division until the Army is reached. By then it’s unhealable. Will he stay?
But H. and I agree they are bright and sympathetic. The New York Times local man in the meantime tells us a horror story about the infamous town of Nablus where, with his children and Israeli neighbor in the back of a station wagon, he was stoned, all glass broken, surrounded by the mob.
In the end it was an Arab who, for whatever motives, led him to safety…The visit was just after the imposition of V.A.T.—all the same, this seems to complete our picture of the dreaded Nablus. Tony Lewis, of all people, is there, at the end of a tour of the Middle East for the N.Y. Times. H. elects to be very irritated by him and later booms on regarding his voice (“the voice of the expert”) in a late-night snarl! I actually find it very interesting to encounter “an expert” or if not that, someone who has actually been to these fated Arab countries now, interviewed Sadat a few days ago—an interview incidentally which, plus the Israeli disregard of it, obsessed H. at the time.
Like the Times leader I suddenly read, arising out of this very interview, called Sadat and the West Bank, written in such completely different spirit, Tony Lewis reminded me how incredibly cut off Israel is. It’s a cut-off society. Tony L.: “The Israelis are so irritating! They are so wonderful, but they’re so irritating that they can’t understand how others see them. They won’t even listen.” (He’s Jewish of course so he can say this, East Coast Jewish, if there is such a thing. There is. Because that’s what H. dislikes about him, I decide in the end late at night.)
Actually it is what one feels—except I don’t find them irritating myself, just wonderful. But then I have not interviewed Begin, have I? Nor argued about Judea and Samaria with him. Tony tells me of Begin in Washington relentlessly holding up proceedings by always referring to “J and S” which is always corrected by the Americans to “the West Bank.” So no one gets anywhere. The next day the Americans let it go, purely to get on with the talks, which are after all very important.
Begin, in triumph: “So you see, our arguments wore them down.”
Excerpted from Our Israeli Diary, 1978 by Antonia Fraser. Copyright © Antonia Fraser, 2017. Published by Oneworld Publications.
Antonia Fraser is the author of many widely acclaimed, internationally bestselling works of historical non-fiction. She has received many awards for her writing, including the Wolfson History Prize, the Norton Medlicott Medal of the Historical Association and the James Tait Black Prize for Biography. In 2011 she was made a DBE for services to literature. She lives in London.