(Denver, Colorado) — Shimon Peres, “the last of Israel’s founding fathers,”
died tonight. He was 93. Please be praying for his family and friends as they grieve his loss and try to adjust to a world without this beloved yet controversial giant.
Peres began his political career in his mid-twenties as a trusted aide to David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the reborn Jewish State in 1948. From there he served in every senior government role there was — Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Finance Minister, and eventually the nation’s President.
Last summer I listened to the audio book of Peres’ absolutely wonderful and moving biography, Ben Gurion: A Political Life
, which I commend to you. Peres had a front row seat to history — indeed, to ancient Biblical prophecies coming to pass — but he was not simply an observer of that history, he was an active and at times transformative participant. He helped launch Israel’s fledgling air force in the late 40s. He started Israel’s nuclear program. He also won the Nobel Prize for his peace-making efforts, even though his moves towards the Palestinians were deeply divisive inside Israel.
The Bear Hug
Are Israel and her neighbors moving closer to war or to peace?
Nowhere was this conundrum more vividly on display for me than at the “Peace: Dream or Vision?” conference I attended in Israel in the fall of 2005, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the beloved Israeli prime minister who signed the historic peace treaty with Jordan’s King Hussein in 1994.
Outside the conference center at the Strategic Dialogue Center of Netanya Academic College were all the reminders of the “wars and rumors of wars” that Jesus said would plague the world until his return—a phalanx of heavily armed security guards, metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and so forth. To get in I had to not only show my passport to the security staff but give it to them to hold on to until I left, and my camera, camera bag, tape recorder, and briefcase were all searched carefully—as was I—before I was allowed to proceed.
But inside were all the reminders of Israelis “living securely” in “the land that is restored from the sword,” which Ezekiel predicted. One moment I was watching former Mossad chief Danny Yatom chatting like old buds with Dr. Abdel Salam Majali, the former Jordanian prime minister, and Osama El-Baz, the chief political advisor to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The next moment I was watching Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, give a bear hug to former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. Once they were all enemies. Now they were all friends. Once they were plotting each other’s demise. Now they were talking about their shared vision for a “new Middle East.”
Such warm relationships between Arab and Israeli leaders may seem insignificant, but they most certainly are not. They actually represent enormous progress toward resolving the conflict. Let me give you a little anecdote to provide some context.
In April of 1988, ABC’s Ted Koppel took Nightline to Israel for a week of broadcasts on the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and the increasingly desperate need for peace and reconciliation between the two sides. Having recently returned to the States after nearly six months in Israel, where I had studied at Tel Aviv University and witnessed the outbreak of the intifada, I watched Koppel’s show with great interest every night in my dorm room at Syracuse University.
On April 25, Koppel held the first-ever town hall meeting between Israelis and Palestinians, broadcast live from the historic Jerusalem Theater. It was bound to be riveting television, for never before had Israeli and Palestinian leaders sat on the same stage together, much less engaged in anything close to a dialogue. But when the show began, I was surprised to see a three-foot-high stone wall running down the middle of the stage. The Israelis sat on one side, the Palestinians on the other. It was a sad symbol of the divide between the two peoples.
Years later, I was interviewed by Koppel on Nightline. After the taping was finished, I had the opportunity to ask Koppel about that wall. “It came up at almost the last minute,” he explained, remembering the moment vividly. “We were just a few hours from going on live from Jerusalem—at 6:30 in the morning, Israel time, mind you, so that the show would be on at 11:30 p.m. back in the U.S.—and suddenly the Palestinians said they refused to appear onstage with the Israelis without sitting in a booth, so they didn’t appear to actually be talking to the Israelis. We said absolutely not. So they asked that we put razor wire down the center of the stage, and again we said no. Finally, they asked that we build a wall—just a small wall, they said—to represent how divided Arabs and Jews are. They threatened not to appear at all if we didn’t do it, so we did it. It was an amazing night.”6
It certainly was. And one of the Palestinians who appeared onstage that night was Saeb Erekat. Then he had refused to shake hands with the Israelis. He had barely made eye contact with them. And he had demanded a wall. Now, at the peace conference in Netanya, he was giving bear hugs. How much the world had changed.7
“A New Age” in the Middle East?
Shimon Peres is a living legend in Israel and is one of the country’s founding fathers. I have long disagreed with his Socialist economic views and a foreign policy too dovish, in my opinion. But I have always respected this man who served his country not once but three times as prime minister and in numerous other ministerial positions and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
I had never met the former prime minister before that conference in Netanya, but having worked for Benjamin Netanyahu—who defeated Peres in 1996—I was very much looking forward to it.
Now in his eighties, Peres is quieter and slower and more grandfatherly than he once was, but he is still a dreamer. He told the assembled dignitaries that he believes the Middle East is entering “a new age” and that he has never been more optimistic that a final peace agreement with the Palestinians can be reached in the not-too-distant future.
“The Lord is in charge of the beginning and the end, but we are responsible for the middle,” he said, insisting that there is no contradiction between fighting terror and negotiating for peace. “When a cat is chasing a mouse, there’s no sense for the mouse to ask for a cease-fire. He must deal with the cat and insure his own safety.”
After Peres’s keynote address, I had a few minutes to interview the former prime minister. “Is it your sense that Israel is more secure today—before we get to the point of the Iran nuclear bomb—than it has been in its history so far?” I asked.
Peres agreed with that assessment. “I would say that Israel’s security was globalized,” he explained in his distinctive, gravelly voice, suggesting that with the U.S. as a strong ally, the fall of Saddam, and peace treaties in place with Egypt and Jordan, the threat Israel faces today is “the problem of terror, rather than a classical attack” by a conventional Arab army or air force.8
Had the passing of Arafat—the Nobel Peace Prize winner who never actually made peace—helped or hurt the prospects for a final deal with the Palestinians? I wondered.
“With him, [the peace process] wouldn’t have started,” Peres insisted. “With him, it wouldn’t be finished.”…..