Saturday, October 1, 2016
The first demonstration I ever attended was at the end of 1967. On one school day, the principal went through all parts of the school, announcing: "The last two classes are canceled, everybody is going to demonstrate at the French Embassy!". We broke into a great cheer and went through the school gates. En route to the embassy we encountered the pupils from other schools, all joining in the great organized spontaneous demonstration. Someone started chanting "De Gaulle / Has a big nose!" (it rhymes in Hebrew) and everybody joined in.
In the Israel of late 1967 it was very fashionable to hate France, and in particular to hate French President Charles de Gaulle. As we read in newspapers and heard from our teachers, France had betrayed Israel and violated the alliance with us at the crucial moment and imposed an arms embargo on Israel. (Israel won the war anyway, but that’s another issue.) And to add insult to injury, we were told that de Gaulle had said anti-Semitic things, though we did not know exactly what. Therefore, we were very happy to demonstrate at the French Embassy instead of studying. Some of us also wanted to throw stones and break the embassy windows, but the police prevented that.
As it happened, a few weeks later I was browsing at a dusty back shelf in my favorite lending library. There a book with an intriguing title: "A Bridge Over The Mediterranean". On the front page appeared a large photo of the Israeli Minister Shimon Peres shaking hands with French President Charles de Gaulle, both smiling broadly, over the background of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris skyline. I read the first chapter in which Shimon Peres spoke at very great length about the strategic alliance between Israel and France. As described in the book, it was a strong and enduring alliance, serving the best interests of both countries. (As far as I can remember, the one thing Peres did not mention was the French aid in building the Dimona Nuclear Pile…).
Actually, it was not such an old book. It had been published just three years earlier, in 1964, but it seems somebody at the library decided to exile it to the back shelf. It was then, at the age of 12, that I was first introduced to Simon Peres "the man of great visions and designs" (not always the same visions and designs...).
In 1976, during a brief leave from the army, I participated with several dozen youths at a Tel Aviv protest against the new settler movement, "Gush Emunim" (Block of the Faithful), whose members were determined to establish themselves at the heart of the Biblically-hallowed "Judea and Samaria". After the demonstration, we sat in a cramped office and listened to the news on a tiny, black and white TV set. "Again, Gush Emunim activists managed to evade the military checkpoints, reach the old railway station in Sebastia and barricade themselves in." said the announcer "Evicting them is expected to result in violent clashes with soldiers".
"What is this nonsense about their evading the checkpoints?" cried one of the organizers. "Defense Minister Shimon Peres is the settlers’ best friend. What more do you want to know? It’s a con game, pure and simple". In that small office, we all felt a very visceral hatred of Shimon Peres.
The next morning, in the bus on the way back to base, I read of "compromise agreement" reached late at night with the blessing of Defense Minister Peres. The Gush Emunim settlers were allowed to remain "temporarily" at a nearby military base. Later, temporary became permanent, the settlers stayed and the it was soldiers who eventually left, and the military base became the settlement of Kedumim.
Shimon Peres definitely had a major share in this outcome.
May 1981 – a crowded meeting at the Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv, to celebrate the election of Francois Mitterrand as President of France. The keynote speaker was Shimon Peres – Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Leader of the Parliamentary opposition and Vice President of the Socialist International. "Europe is becoming a Socialist Continent!" cried Peres. "This is the wave of the future, and we in Israel should become part of it!" It was the first time I heard Shimon Peres praising Socialism, and it did not last long. (In truth, Mitterrand himself, as well as the other members of the Socialist International, have not shown a real commitment to the principles of Socialism…)
September 1982: the First Lebanon War had been raging for three months, culminating with the terrible massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A wave of demonstrations and protests throughout the country, I have spent the previous night at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in south Tel Aviv. A crucial meeting between major activists of the "Committee Against the Lebanon War" on one hand and the leadership of "Peace Now" on the other.
"Peace Now wants to have on Saturday night a very big rally, a huge one, on the Kings of Israel Square. It should really be a mass event, bigger than anything anyone of us ever did before. But you of the Committee got first to the police, you have the permit for using the square on that night. If you don’t pass it on to us, Peace Now will not be able to do it. And you, too, know that if you mobilize only your own supporters, the rally would be much smaller." - "OK, we are ready to give you the license." - "But there is a problem. The Labor Party is ready to join, to change their position. They are going to stop supporting the war in Lebanon start speaking out against the war. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are willing – they very much want - to mount the podium and speak very sharply against Begin and Sharon. But I hate to say this, Peres and Rabin are not willing to share the podium with anyone from the Extreme Left. "
All eyes in the room turned to the radical poet Yitzhak Laor, who was going to be the keynote speaker for the Committee Against The War. After a moment of silence he muttered a pungent oath and said: "The hell with it! No one will be able to say that I spoiled a big rally against the war crimes. Let Rabin and Peres have the podium to themselves and welcome!". So was born the memorable "Demonstration of the Four Hundred Thousand", the biggest public event in Israel’s history until then.
Some two or three years later - again a small demonstration of several dozens, and again sitting afterwards to see the TV evening news at a dusty office (color TV this time). In this demonstration, as in many protests and events held at the time, we chanted "Talk peace / With the PLO / Now, now, now!"/ . We distributed to the indifferent Tel Avivian passers by leaflets about the meetings which activists of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace held with PLO officials, and about the positive messages which they got from the Palestinians.
On that evening TV interviewed Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s cabinet. Peres rejected out of hand the option of negotiating with the PLO - "It is a terrorist organization, they are opposed to peace, they have nothing positive to contribute – absolutely nothing." Conversely, he greatly praised King Hussein of Jordan - "The King is a serious, reliable partner. The real option for peace is the Jordanian Option!"
"What an idiot!" said one of the people sitting next to me. "He wants to give the Territories to Jordan. And then the Palestinians will say that the agreement does not bind them, and will continue fighting Israel. What a clever deal - pay the full prize and get nothing in return! How can such a stupid person get so high?"
As we learned later, at that time Peres had held a secret meeting with King Hussein in London and reached a draft agreement, but Prime Minister Shamir vetoed it and the initiative failed. We did not share Peres’ outrage and protest at "The loss of a historic opportunity".
April 1990 - the government coalition crisis which came to be known in Israeli history as "The Dirty Trick". With the outbreak of the First Intifada the Jordanian Option was definitely off the agenda. The Americans suggested that Israel negotiate with a Palestinian delegation not officially representing the PLO but including representatives from East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Shamir rejected the proposal out of hand and accused Foreign Minister Peres of discreetly encouraging the Americans. Peres and the other Laborites resigned and brought down the Shamir Government in a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Thereupon, Shimon Peres announced that he had managed to form a new government headed by himself, and that it would be presented to the Knesset on the morning of April 12. But on that morning, as we waited, the hours passed and there was no sign of the new cabinet. There were increasing rumors the ultra-Orthodox have abandoned Peres at the last minute and deprived him of the expected parliamentary majority. This turned out to be true. By noon, Peres appeared on the screen, tense and pale, and announced "a delay in presenting the new cabinet". "Damn!" said one of my friends. "This means that we remain stuck with Shamir, and he will continue to block everything. God damn the ultra-Orthodox to Hell! "
1994 - After the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced the award of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres for their part in the Oslo Agreements, Yedioth Ahronoth published a nasty commentary. The writer attacked Peres harshly, accusing him of being "a publicity stunt man" who had "pushed through the signing of the horrible Oslo Accord" for the sole purpose of getting the Nobel Prize.
So I immediately sat down and wrote a Letter to the Editor. I don’t have the exact text (at that time, such things were not yet preserved on the computer), but I remember quite clearly that I expressed unreserved support for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. I wrote that he was a statesman of the first order, of whom any country could be proud. I wrote in that letter (as I wrote and said very often, at the time) that Shimon Peres deserved praise and the Nobel Prize for understanding that Israel must end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians - not only for the sake of the Palestinians but also for its own future.
I praised Peres for understanding that in order to talk to the Palestinians one needs to talk with those that the Palestinians themselves regard as their representative – namely, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Head, Yasser Arafat. I also wrote that Peres deserved to be praised for having managed to overcome his bitter rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin, work closely with Rabin and convince the Prime Minister to shake hands with Yasser Arafat.
For all these reasons, I concluded, Shimon Peres fully and rightly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize - more so than many others who got it before him. "Yediot Ahronot" shortened my letter, but the essential parts did get published on the next day.
November 1995 - The bitter night of the Rabin Assassination. A very successful peace rally on the square, the big crowds who came to express confidence in the Peace Process that began in Oslo, Rabin and Peres on the podium singing the Peace Song. The rally over, hundreds of young people dancing merrily to the tune of Brazilian Samba music from the loudspeakers. Suddenly the honking of a long column of police cars, wild rumors of a terrorist attack, the news that Prime Minister Rabin was hit by an assassin’s bullets, hundreds of people running all the way to the gate of the Ichilov hospital, Cabinet Spokesperson Eitan Haber appearing and reading out the communiquי: "The Government of Israel announces with shock ...".
Returning to the square. Sitting in mourning circles around the lighted candles. The radio reported that the cabinet convened in the middle of the night for an emergency session and elected Shimon Peres as Prime Minister Pro Tem, pending Knesset approval. Several youths walk to the wall of the nearby Tel Aviv Town Hall and spray paint a huge graffiti: "You will never walk alone, Shimon Peres!".
Already that night, we started talking about what Peres should do. Immediately dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, so as to win a large majority? Act firmly and strongly against the settlers, now that their public standing is at a low ebb?
Alas, Shimon Peres did not follow any of our "advices". Instead, he soon got entangled in a completely unnecessary, bloody military operation in Lebanon - "Operation Grapes of Wrath". In April 1995, after 106 Lebanese civilians were killed by a stray Israeli artillery shell at the village of Qana, I was at a protest outside the home of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Ramat Aviv. It was a militant demonstration, with very sharp slogans chanted against The Prime Minister, including such terms as "murderer", "assassin" and "war criminal". We collided with the police cordon which barred our way, and came very close to spending the night in custody. Yet, during the dispersal I told my fellow demonstrators: "There is no choice. Despite everything, in the elections we will have to vote for him." - "What? For this bastard?" - "What else? Do you want Netanyahu as Prime Minister?".
At that moment, the expression "Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu" still seemed a kind of science fiction, a remote and highly unlikely eventuality. But a bare month and a half later, it became a reality that accompanies the state of Israel up to the present. On elections night we sat awake, with the predictions showing a victory for Netanyahu – a victory by a narrow but clear margin. Hour after hour we sat in front of the screen, hoping against hope for a change - until with the morning light, predictions became certainty and Shimon Peres lost irrevocably his last chance at holding Israel’s helm of state.
I could continue this article on and on and specify more moments in the life of Shimon Peres - lights and shadows, contrary landmarks, times when we were very angry with him for agreeing to serve Netanyahu and represent him on the international arena and other times when Peres tries at least to some degree to face up to the leader of the Likud and take all sorts of initiatives to promote peace. There was the failed attempt to be elected as the (purely titular) President of Israel and a second attempt which succeeded. And the last years, when he was very popular with the general Israeli public and increasingly pushed aside the vision of peace and of The New Middle East and chose to focus on a new, non-political dream and vision – i.e. the intensive promotion of nanotechnology and of the enormous blessings nanotechnology could give to mankind.
Still, now that Shimon Peres’ long career definitely ended in a huge state funeral in the presence of Heads of State and assorted VIP’s from all over the world, I’d rather finish my personal review with that decisive moment of failure in the 1996 elections.
Was Shimon Peres a Man of Peace? Many of my political friends are skeptical about that, to say the least. It is not difficult to gather damning evidence and point to black spots all along Peres’ career.
As for me - I would have been very happy indeed if it were possible to turn the wheel backwards, go back to May 1996 and give Shimon Peres the extra thirty thousand voices which would have made him a Prime Minister for an extra four years and reduced Netanyahu to a forgotten footnote in Israel’s history.
The Shimon Peres of 1996 was completely committed, politically and personally, to the Oslo Accords. There is good reason to believe that, with a solid mandate for four more years, Peres would have embarked with his typical energy and determination on the Permanent Status negotiations with the Palestinians. That he would have seriously tried to reach an agreement by the May 1999 deadline agreed upon. And that with an agreement reached, he would have worked very hard to implement it on the ground.
Would he have succeeded? Would we now be living in a completely different situation, in a real New Middle East? Or would Peres have wasted this chance, too, and ended in a dismal failure? We will never know.
In reality it is impossible to go back in time and change history. Hopefully, we will still succeed to change the future.