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Shimon Peres became a beloved Israeli leader by staying quiet about peace

The myth of an Israeli icon - An honest and accurate look at the legacy of Shimon Peres - Man of Peace or Man of Terror. For Mr. Peres, “peace” always meant colonial pacification.

October 1

0:00
2016

Prague , Czech Republic - 1 Oct 2016 -

A few years ago, Peres described the Palestinians as “self-victimising.”  He went on: “They victimise themselves. They are a victim of their own mistakes 
unnecessarily.” Such cruel condescension was characteristic of a man for whom “peace”  always meant colonial pacification.

Though Israel was founded less than 70 years ago, there aren't any "founding fathers" left alive. And now the next closest thing to being one of Israel's original patriarchs, ex-president and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, has died at the age of 93. Reflecting on Peres's death is like reflecting on the Israeli state as a whole. He was mentored by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and he was part of Mapai, the forerunner of today's Israeli Labor party and the dominant political power through Israel's first two decades.

Peres's legacy is complicated. He began his career in Israel's Ministry of Defense and then became something of a dove later in life, opposing the construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, before moving to the political center. According to the International Crisis Group's Israel-Palestine analyst Ofer Zalzberg, the conventional story about Peres, in Israel and among the global elite eulogizing him today, "leaves out two big things."

"It leaves out the transformation that he went through from the '70s, when he supported settlements and he was a hawk," Zalzberg said. "But by the 90s he was looking for ways to dismantle the settlements. Even in glossing over [Peres's history], you have to shed light on his transformation."

The latter part of Peres's career — quasi-peacenik, pro-two state solution, elder statesman — traditionally made him a figure of admiration on the center and center-left. But Zalzberg says that "you see now in more settler newspapers, more acknowledgement of his role initially when Mapai supported the settlements, the nuclear program, furthering relations with France." For most politicians, supporting negotiations with the Palestinians effectively ended the higher aspirations of many centrist and left-leaning figures — whether by bullet (Rabin) or ballot box (Barak, Livni). For Peres, who helped negotiate the Oslo Accords — they formally created an official Palestinian government — in the early 1990s, however, things turned out differently.

Though Israelis largely soured on peace negotiations after Oslo, instead favoring the more militant, pro-settler politics of the center-right, Peres grew from being a "divisive" politician (in Zalzberg's words) to taking on a "father-figure" sort of role.

"This dissonance comes from the fact that they respected him as a leader, and disagreed with him/ on this issue," Zalzberg said. "They accepted it because he had some sort of founding role in creating the State of Israel as a successful operation. They're able to live with this dissonance for that simple fact."

After abandoning Labor for the centrist Kadima party in the mid-2000s, Peres was appointed to the ceremonial role of President in 2007, which he held until 2014. And by then, his politics appeared to harden around the edges.

"He never criticized the fact that there are Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and he didn't take the Obama view that Gilo [a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem] is a settlement," Zalzberg said. "He did not fully endorse the international view on settlements, he was very much part of the Israeli consensus [by then]."

But as president, Peres didn't really dwell on the peace process, instead turning his attention to innovation in Israel's burgeoning tech sector and developing the country's arid and poor southern region, the Negev Desert. Peres "believed in both, but saw that he could only do one."

"He was interested in tech, making the [Negev] desert bloom — which he'd been interested in 50 years," Zalzberg said. "But at some point... he increasingly realized that unless he could make himself heard, there was little he could do concretely for peace, so he dedicated his time to questions of innovation."

And by not talking about the Palestinians or ending the occupation of the West Bank, Peres made himself beloved. Recent surveys showed Peres to be one of the most popular people in public life in Israel, with a 77 percent satisfaction rating, even though polling data show that in recent years, Israelis have considered the Accords to have "hurt" Israel more than they helped.

As for what tangibly remains of Peres's legacy, most well-known is his namesake organization, the Tel Aviv-based Peres Center for Peace, which is committed to both a two-state solution and to the peace process. Most of Israel, however, disagrees. Though 59 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution, only 43 percent agree with the terms that have been set by previous negotiations — terms that Peres, perhaps more than any other, was involved in setting.

A bried history of Peres

Peres was born in modern day Belarus in 1923, and his family moved to Palestine in the 1930s. As a young man, Peres joined the Haganah, the militia primarily responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages in 1947-49, during the Nakba. Despite the violent displacement of the Palestinians being a matter of historical record, Peres has always insisted that Zionist forces “upheld the purity of arms” during the establishment of the State of Israel. Indeed, he even claimed that before Israel existed, “there was nothing here”.

Over seven decades, Peres served as prime minister (twice) and president, though he never actually won a national election outright. He was a member of 12 cabinets and had stints as defence, foreign and finance minister. He is perhaps best known in the West for his role in the negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords which won him, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet for Palestinians and their neighbours in the Middle East, Peres’ track record is very different from his reputation in the West as a tireless “dove”. The following is by no means a comprehensive summary of Peres’ record in the service of colonialism and apartheid.

Nuclear weapons

Between 1953 and 1965, Peres served first as director general of Israel’s defence ministry and then as deputy defence minister. On account of his responsibilities at the time, Peres has been described as “an architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme” which, to this day, “remains outside the scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

In 1975, as secret minutes have since revealed, Peres met with South African Defence Minister PW Botha and “offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime.

” In 1986, Peres authorised the Mossad operation that saw nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu* kidnapped in Rome.

Targetting Palestinian citizens

Peres had a key role in the military regime imposed on Palestinian citizens until 1966, under which authorities carried out mass land theft and displacement. One such tool was Article 125 which allowed Palestinian land to be declared a closed military zone. Its owners denied access, the land would then be confiscated as “uncultivated”. Peres praised Article 125 as a means to “directly continue the struggle for Jewish settlement and Jewish immigration.”

Another one of Peres’ responsibilities in his capacity as director general of the defence ministry was to “Judaise” the Galilee; that is to say, to pursue policies aimed at reducing the region’s proportion of Palestinian citizens compared to Jewish ones. In 2005, as Vice Premier in the cabinet of Ariel Sharon, Peres renewed his attack on Palestinian citizens with plans to encourage Jewish Israelis to move to the Galilee. His “development” plan covered 104 communities – 100 of them Jewish.

In secret conversations with US officials that same year, Peres claimed Israel had “lost one million dunams [1,000 square kilometres] of Negev land to the Bedouin”, adding that the “development” of the Negev and Galilee could “relieve what [he] termed a demographic threat.”

Supporting illegal settlements in the West Bank

While Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank has come to be associated primarily with Likud and other right-wing nationalist parties, it was in fact Labor which kick-started the colonisation of the newly-conquered Palestinian territory – and Peres was an enthusiastic participant. During Peres’ tenure as defence minister, from 1974 to 1977, the Rabin government established a number of key West Bank settlements, including Ofra, large sections of which were built on confiscated privately-owned Palestinian land.

Having played a key role in the early days of the settlement enterprise, in more recent years, Peres has intervened to undermine any sort of measures, no matter how modest, at sanctioning the illegal colonies – always, of course, in the name of protecting “peace negotiations”.

The Qana massacre

As prime minister in 1996, Peres ordered and oversaw “Operation Grapes of Wrath” when Israeli armed forces killed some 154 civilians in Lebanon and injured another 351. The operation, widely believed to have been a pre-election show of strength, saw Lebanese civilians intentionally targeted.

According to the official Israeli Air Force website (in Hebrew, not English), the operation involved “massive bombing of the Shia villages in South Lebanon in order to cause a flow of civilians north, toward Beirut, thus applying pressure on Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah.”

The campaign’s most notorious incident was the Qana massacre, when Israel shelled a United Nations compound and killed 106 sheltering civilians. A UN report stated that, contrary to Israeli denials, it was “unlikely” that the shelling “was the result of technical and/or procedural errors.”

Later, Israeli gunners told Israeli television that they had no regrets over the massacre, as the dead were “just a bunch of Arabs”. As for Peres, his conscience was also clean: “Everything was done according to clear logic and in a responsible way,” he said. “I am at peace.”

Gaza – defending blockade and brutality

Peres came into his own as one of Israel’s most important global ambassadors in the last ten years, as the Gaza Strip was subjected to a devastating blockade and three major offensives. Despite global outrage at such policies, Peres has consistently backed collective punishment and military brutality.

In January 2009, for example, despite calls by “Israeli human rights organisations…for ‘Operation Cast Lead’ to be halted”, Peres described “national solidarity behind the military operation” as “Israel’s finest hour.” According to Peres, the aim of the assault “was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel.”

During “Operation Pillar of Defence” in November 2012, Peres “took on the job of helping the Israeli public relations effort, communicating the Israeli narrative to world leaders,” in the words of Ynetnews. On the eve of Israel’s offensive, “Peres warned Hamas that if it wants normal life for the people of Gaza, then it must stop firing rockets into Israel.”

In 2014, during an unprecedented bombardment of Gaza, Peres stepped up once again to whitewash war crimes. After Israeli forces killed four small children playing on a beach, Peres knew who to blame – the Palestinians: “It was an area that we warned would be bombed,” he said. “And unfortunately they didn’t take out the children.”

The choking blockade, condemned internationally as a form of prohibited collective punishment, has also been defended by Peres – precisely on the grounds that it is a form of collective punishment. As Peres put it in 2014: “If Gaza ceases fire, there will be no need for a blockade.”

Peres’ support for collective punishment also extended to Iran. Commenting in 2012 on reports that six million Iranians suffering from cancer were unable to get treatment due to sanctions, Peres said: “If they want to return to a normal life, let them become normal.”

Unapologetic to the end

Peres was always clear about the goal of a peace deal with the Palestinians. As he said in 2014: “The first priority is preserving Israel as a Jewish state. That is our central goal, that is what we are fighting for.” Last year he reiterated these sentiments in an interview with AP, saying: “Israel should implement the two-state solution for her own sake,” so as not to “lose our [Jewish] majority.”

This, recall, was what shaped Labor’s support for the Oslo Accords. Rabin, speaking to the Knesset not long before his assassination in 1995, was clear that what Israel sought from the Oslo Accords was a Palestinian “entity” that would be “less than a state”. Jerusalem would be Israel’s undivided capital, key settlements would be annexed and Israel would remain in the Jordan Valley. A few years ago, Peres described the Palestinians as “self-victimising.” He went on: “They victimise themselves. They are a victim of their own mistakes unnecessarily.” Such cruel condescension was characteristic of a man for whom “peace” always meant colonial pacification.

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