On the death of Shimon Peres

Stranger than fiction

In the blanket homage to the late Israeli politician Shimon Peres there are significant omissions. One should not speak ill of the dead. But nevertheless, the gushing praise demands further clarification. A critical appraisal by Stefan Buchen

He fought "tirelessly" for "peace". He was "a man of reconciliation", an "exceptional politician". He embodied "the grace of Zionism". Governments and media are in agreement: in Shimon Peres, we have lost a "great statesman".

A quick reality check leads to the suspicion: something's not quite right here. The situation of the state of Israel cannot be described with the word "peace" – neither regarding its relationship with its neighbours, nor within its own borders. There is nothing "gracious" about the metre-high concrete wall aimed at separating Israelis from the Palestinians, the cyclical outbreaks of violence and the arsenal of nuclear weapons, not to mention the aggression of the public and private political discourse. Shimon Peres was involved in all this, in some cases playing a decisive role.

There are essentially two responses to explain the latent discrepancy between the solemn tone of the obits and reality. Firstly: perhaps the statesman Shimon Peres wasn't quite so "great". In any case he must have been much too weak and small to realise his "visions for peace". Secondly: perhaps the image of the Prince of Peace is a flimsy ideal, one that only offers a highly inadequate description of the political figure of Shimon Peres. Perhaps "reconciliation" with the neighbours was not the determinant motive of his actions at all. One must seek out the truth in a combination of both answers.

Peres had it easy in the winter of 1995/96. On 4 November 1995, a national-religious fanatic assassinated serving Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Peres, who had also been taking part in the memorable demonstration in support of the "Oslo Accord", was shunted up from the post of foreign minister to the helm of government.

Peres (left) and Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before Rabin was assassinated in 1995 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Many Israelis were shocked at the hatred that had led to the murder of Rabin. Peres could have reined in those fanatics agitating against the peace accord with the Palestinians, clipping the political wings of their spokesmen. But Peres eschewed confronting his political opponents head on

There was every indication that he would win the impending elections and be confirmed in office. He was carried on a wave of sympathy at home and all over the world. Many Israelis were shocked at the hatred that had led to the murder of Rabin. Peres could have reined in those fanatics agitating against the peace accord with the Palestinians, clipping the political wings of their spokesmen Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

A grave political error

But Peres eschewed confronting his domestic political opponents head on. In the midst of the election campaign, he instead launched the dreadful military operation in Lebanon with the preposterously poetic name "Grapes of Wrath". Intended to weaken the Tehran-sponsored Shia Hezbollah militia, this did not happen. Instead, in one single bombardment, Israeli artillery killed more than 100 people who had sought refuge in a UN building in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.

With the campaign, Shimon Peres wanted to demonstrate his strong man credentials, national security his top priority. The result: Peres was beaten in the general election on 29 May 1996 and Netanyahu became prime minister. This defeat at the polls was one of the gravest political errors of modern times. This failure is the decisive moment in Peres' political biography.

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