For nearly as long as there has been an Israel, there has been a Shimon Peres at the heart of its politics, wars and peace plans.
This week in Jerusalem, an odd assortment of statesmen and celebrities – from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to Barbra Streisand and Robert De Niro – came together to celebrate the life of the man who has done just about every major job in Israeli public life, as he approaches his 90th birthday in August.
He leaves the office of president – a largely ceremonial role – next year, and has already said that he will not seek re-election. So how does one judge his career, and his contribution to Israel and Middle East?
On one level he has completely failed. From an Israeli perspective, the Jewish state is still not secure, and its borders are constantly questioned. In a regional context, too, he has been unable to convince Israelis of the merits of peace. In 1996, for example, as acting prime minister after the assassination of his great friend and political rival, Yitzhak Rabin, he lost an election to Benjamin Netanyahu, and with it went any lingering hope that the Oslo accords might lead to a lasting deal.
Mr Peres recently said that he expects to see peace with the Palestinians in his lifetime, and is a passionate supporter of John Kerry’s efforts to get the two sides back around the negotiating table. This is already proving to be a titanic struggle, and that’s before the big issues – the fate of Jerusalem, of Jewish settlements, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees to name but three – are even considered. Objectively, it is hard to imagine that Mr Peres’s ambition will be fulfilled.
One can also say that he contributed to the mess. Today, Mr Peres is Israel’s peacenik-in-chief, but early in his career he was considered a hawk and was an early enthusiast for the settlement project in the West Bank, which many now regard as the single biggest obstacle to peace. The settlements, built on occupied Palestinian land, are considered illegal under international law. Speak to visiting foreign ministers and diplomats, and the settlements are never far from the top of their agendas.
But to conclude that Mr Peres’s career has been a failure, or that he has been a malign influence on the Middle East process, would be both wrong and grossly unfair. It was he who met Yasser Arafat in secret before the Oslo accords in 1993; he who tried in vain to convince Israelis that the whole thing was still worth fighting for after Rabin’s death; and to this day, it is he who is correctly warning Israel that a failure to find a peace deal is bad for everyone, including Israelis themselves. Without a Shimon Peres, the situation in the Holy Land would be much bleaker.
How he compares with other Israeli leaders is another matter. Despite three stints as prime minister, he has never won an election and then subsequently been able to form a majority government – in other words, he has never carried the country on the strength of his arguments. He has always excelled as the foreign or defence minister, and now as the President where he has licence to speak his mind, but never in the principal job.
Because of its longevity, Shimon Peres’s career will undoubtedly be remembered fondly, but he has never quite got his message to stick. He is a great statesman, but whether he was a great leader, like Rabin, who was brave enough to keep telling Israelis what was good for them even though they didn’t want to hear it, or a David Ben-Gurion, who is credited as being the founder of modern-day Israel, is questionable.
Any time, anywhere? Really?
For those that don’t have the benefit of Shimon Peres’s sunny optimism, the mood music around the latest efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking again does not sound too good. One sure-fire way of knowing that things are going badly is that the two sides are already starting to blame each other, even though the official line is that everyone is still hopeful that John Kerry’s efforts will prevail.
At a meeting in West Jerusalem with one senior Israeli official earlier this week, we were told that Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to meet the Palestinian leadership, anywhere and at any time.
Interestingly, it was the second time I heard a version of this. The week before, this time in East Jerusalem, an equally senior Palestinian official said that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, was ready to meet the Israelis whenever they were ready.
If officials are telling journalists that they are ready, it makes you wonder exactly what they are telling Mr Kerry. Of course, the whole point is to be able to pin the blame on the other side if and when the process collapses, but it doesn’t bode well for Mr Kerry and his initiative.