Shimon Peres, the ninth president of Israel, died on Wednesday in Tel Aviv at the age of 93, following a massive stroke. The passing of the Polish-born Peres, who also served as prime minister twice, has been met with mixed emotions around the world.
Throughout his career, Peres worked for two seemingly opposite goals: growing Israel’s defense operations, while also playing an active part in peace-building efforts like the Oslo Accords, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
The left-leaning Israeli publication Haaretz offered perhaps the best analysis of Peres, acknowledging his dueling roles: as military man and peace advocate, as settlement proponent and settlement naysayer, as an aging senior statesman but as a mistrusted opportunist. To say that these contradictions are not all true of Peres is to offer an unfinished account of his legacy. Acknowledging these discrepancies, however, is proving hard for American leaders and media.
In a statement released by the White House, President Obama praised Peres’ quest for peace, without mention of his role in growing Israel’s aggressive military.
“Shimon was the essence of Israel itself — the courage of Israel’s fight for independence, the optimism he shared with his wife Sonya as they helped make the desert bloom, and the perseverance that led him to serve his nation in virtually every position in government across the entire life of the State of Israel,” read the statement. “Perhaps because he had seen Israel surmount overwhelming odds, Shimon never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors — not even after the heartbreak of the night in Tel Aviv that took Yitzhak Rabin. ‘Dear friends,’ he told us during my visit to Israel three years ago, ‘after everything I have seen in my life, I earned the right to believe that peace is attainable.’”
His comments were echoed by Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, among others. They weren’t alone.
The Atlantic bemoaned the loss of the last of Israel’s founding fathers. CNN called Peres Israel’s “warrior for peace,” while the Guardian lauded him as a “Nobel winner and giant of Israeli politics.” The New York Times offered a sympathetic goodbye.
But of Peres’ complexity, and staggering failings, little was said — a huge disservice to the many victims of his policies.
A study in contradictions, Peres was both one of the leading architects of Israel’s hawkish defense system and of its ongoing, muddled peace process.
Born in Wiszniew, Poland (now Vishnyeva, Belarus) in 1923, Peres immigrated to British-mandated Palestine a few years before the outbreak of World War II, which would see the massacre of virtually every Jewish member of his hometown. Inspired by Zionism and Jewish activism from a young age, Peres played an early role in Israel’s defense forces and rose to serve as Defense Minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He also served as a key player in the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. He would later become a favorite in the West for his roles in negotiating peace deals with Jordan and with Palestinian officials, part of what he hoped would secure Israeli safety.
But Peres’ role as a harbinger of peace has long been called into question by his own track record in the region. His role in helping to architect the 1956 Suez Crisis, which saw Israel invading the Egyptian Sinai, foreshadowed the hawkish stance he would later take when interacting with Israel’s neighbors. He played a notable role in advocating for Operation Grapes of Wrath, a bloody and infamous campaign against Hezbollah in 1996, which included the brutal Qana massacre — Israel’s shelling of over a hundred Lebanese civilians.
Closer to home, Peres was also notorious. For Israelis, he was often viewed as opportunistic and self-serving, quick to insert himself into political issues and even quicker to take credit. For many Palestinians, he was seen as a warmonger. Peres continuously defended Israel’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, remaining in firm support of Jewish settlements and military aggression on Palestinian land. Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he helped lead a campaign advocating for the building of Jewish property in the occupied territories.
The slogan? “Settlements everywhere!”
Over the course of the next few decades, Peres would somewhat walk back his aggressive nationalism. Throughout his political career, he slowly worked to move away from his image as an aggressive military advocate. Conscious of his own Polish-accented Hebrew in the midst of a shifting Israel — one that has only recently begun to reject European Jewish Ashkenazi elitism in favor of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish immigrants — Peres seemed to evolve with the times. In his final years he was seen by much of the Western world as a peace activist, frequently sparring with now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the latter’s hardline approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But Peres’ history is ultimately complicated. While Western media has been quick to mourn him, elsewhere outlets have been less swift to dub Peres a man of peace. Al Jazeera questioned whether he was a “peacemaker or a war criminal”, and the Telegraph called him “flawed.” The Independent also offered reactions from Palestinians, many of whom view his death as an escape from justice for his role in sustaining the occupation.