by Ilan Pappe
September 28, 2016
The obituaries for Shimon Peres have already appeared, no doubt prepared in advance as the news of his hospitalization reached the media.
The verdict on his life is very clear and was already pronounced by US President Barack Obama: Peres was a man who changed the course of human history in his relentless search for peace in the Middle East.
My guess is that very few of the obituaries will examine Peres’ life and activities from the perspective of the victims of Zionism and Israel.
He occupied many positions in politics that had immense impact on the Palestinians wherever they are. He was director general of the Israeli defense ministry, minister of defense, minister for development of the Galilee and the Negev (Naqab), prime minister and president.
In all these roles, the decisions he took and the policies he pursued contributed to the destruction of the Palestinian people and did nothing to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Born Szymon Perski in 1923, in a town that was then part of Poland, Peres immigrated to Palestine in 1934. As a teenager in an agricultural school, he became active in politics within the Labor Zionist movement that led Zionism and later the young State of Israel.
As a leading figure in the movement’s youth cadres, Peres attracted the attention of the high command of the Jewish paramilitary force in British-ruled Palestine, the Haganah.
In 1947, Peres was fully recruited to the organization and sent abroad by its leader David Ben-Gurion to purchase arms which were later used in the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and against the Arab contingents that entered Palestine that year.
After a few years abroad, mainly in the United States, where he was busy purchasing arms and building the infrastructure for the Israeli military industry, he returned to become director general of the defense ministry.
Peres was active in forging Israel’s collusion with the UK and France to invade Egypt in 1956, for which Israel was rewarded by France with the needed capacity to build nuclear weapons.
Indeed it was Peres himself who largely oversaw Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.
No less important was the zeal Peres showed under Ben-Gurion’s guidance and inspiration to Judaize the Galilee. Despite the 1948 ethnic cleansing, that part of Israel was still very much Palestinian countryside and landscape.
Peres was behind the idea of confiscating Palestinian land for the purpose of building exclusive Jewish towns such as Karmiel and Upper Nazareth and basing the military in the region so as to disrupt territorial contiguity between Palestinian villages and towns.
This ruination of the Palestinian countryside led to the disappearance of the traditional Palestinian villages and the transformation of the farmers into an underemployed and deprived urban working class. This dismal reality is still with us today.
Peres disappeared for a while from the political scene when his master Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was pushed aside in 1963 by a new generation of leaders.
He came back after the 1967 War and the first portfolio he held was as minister responsible for the occupied territories. In this role, he legitimized, quite often retroactively, the settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As so many of us realize today, by the time the pro-settlement Likud party came to power in 1977, the Jewish settlement infrastructure, in particular in the West Bank, had already rendered a two-state solution an impossible vision.
In 1974, Peres’ political career became intimately connected to that of his nemesis, Yitzhak Rabin. The two politicians who could not stand each other, had to work in tandem for the sake of political survival.
However, on Israel’s strategy toward the Palestinians, they shared the Zionist settler-colonial perspective, coveting as much of Palestine’s land as possible with as few Palestinians on it as possible.
They worked well together in quelling brutally the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.
Peres’ first role in this difficult partnership was as defense minister in the 1974 Rabin government. The first real crisis Peres faced was a major expansion of the messianic settler movement Gush Emunim’s colonization effort in and around the West Bank city of Nablus.
Rabin opposed the new settlements, but Peres stood with the settlers and those colonies that now strangulate Nablus are there thanks to his efforts.
In 1976, Peres led government policy on the occupied territories, convinced that a deal could be struck with Jordan, by which the West Bank would be within Jordanian jurisdiction but under effective Israeli rule.
He initiated municipal elections in the West Bank but to his great surprise and disappointment, the candidates identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization were elected and not the ones loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy.
But Peres remained faithful to what he named the “Jordanian option” as an opposition leader after 1977 and when he returned to power in coalition with the Likud in 1984-1988. He pushed forward the negotiations on the basis of this concept until King Hussein’s decision to cede any political connection between Jordan and the West Bank in 1988.
Israel’s international face
The 1990s exposed to the world to a more mature and coherent Peres. He was Israel’s international face, whether in government or outside it. He played this role even after the Likud ascended as the main political force in the land.
In power, in Rabin’s government in the early 1990s, as prime minister after Rabin’s 1995 assassination, and then as a minister in the cabinet of Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001, Peres pushed a new concept for what he called “peace.”
Instead of sharing rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jordan or Egypt, he now wished to do it with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The idea was accepted by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who may have hoped to build on this a new project for the liberation of Palestine.
As enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords, this concept was enthusiastically endorsed by Israel’s international allies.
Peres was the leading ambassador of this peace process charade that provided an international umbrella for Israel to establish facts on the ground that would create a greater apartheid Israel with small Palestinianbantustans scattered within it.
The fact that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for a process that advanced the ruination of Palestine and its people is yet another testimony to world governments’ misunderstanding, cynicism and apathy toward their suffering.
We are fortunate to live in an era in which international civil society has exposed this charade and offers, through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the growing support for the one-state solution, a more hopeful and genuine path forward.
As prime minister, Peres had one additional “contribution” to make to the history of Palestinian and Lebanese suffering.
In response to the endless skirmishes between Hizballah and the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, where Hizballah and other groups resisted the Israeli occupation that began in 1982 until they drove it out in 2000, Peres ordered the bombing of the whole area in April 1996.
During what Israel dubbed Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israeli shelling killed more than 100 people – civilians fleeing bombardment and UN peacekeepers from Fiji – near the village of Qana.
Despite a United Nations investigation that found Israel’s explanation that the shelling had been an accident to be “unlikely,” the massacre did nothing to dent Peres’ international reputation as a “peacemaker.”
In this century, Peres was more a symbolic figurehead than an active politician. He founded the Peres Center for Peace, built on confiscated Palestinian refugee property in Jaffa, which continues to sell the idea of a Palestinian “state” with little land, real independence or sovereignty as the best possible solution.
That will never work, but if the world continues to be committed to this Peres legacy, there will be no end to the suffering of the Palestinians.
Shimon Peres symbolized the beautification of Zionism, but the facts on the ground lay bare his role in perpetrating so much suffering and conflict. Knowing the truth, at least, helps us understand how to move forward and undo so much of the injustice Peres helped create.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.