Shimon Peres: the ‘failure’ who has achieved so much for Israel

This week an odd assortment of personalities came together to celebrate the life of the outgoing Israeli president - but how to judge such a long and varied career?


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?