Fortunately, his parents took him to Palestine in the 1930s, when he was 13 years old (I came a bit earlier). He was sent to a famous Zionist youth village, married the daughter of the local carpenter and was just settling down in a kibbutz, when he discovered a higher calling.
IN THE early 1940s, there was a split in Mapai, the almighty ruling party in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine). The dissidents founded a new party, more socialist, more kibbutz-oriented and more "activist" in national affairs. Naturally, most young people were drawn to it.
That was Peres' first great chance. He was one of the very few young people who remained true to the old party, and thus attracted the attention of the party bosses, Ben-Gurion and Levy Eshkol. That was the end of Peres the kibbutznik and the beginning birth of Peres the life-long politician.
He did what he did later many times in his life. He "plowed" the country, visited all the local chapters of the youth movement, made speech after speech. His indefatigable diligence made up for the lack of natural charm. His deep voice gave his most banal platitudes the ring of profound truth.
WHAT WERE his innermost convictions? What did he believe in?
Well, that depends on the year, the day and the hour. Throughout his political life, Peres has held all possible views, shedding them without a backward glance and adopting others. He is the perfect example of Groucho Marx's famous dictum: "These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others, too."
When I first met him, he was a raving hawk. He and Moshe Dayan were pushing Ben-Gurion -- and were being pushed by him -- towards war by "warming up" the borders with "retaliation raids." He boasts of being the architect of the then French-Israeli alliance.
France was fighting a dirty war to keep Algeria in its grip and needed Israel to divert the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser. Peres willingly served this noble cause and prepared the French-Israeli-British collusion that led to their attack on Egypt. The 1956 Suez war was a disaster for Israel, because it finally consolidated in Arab eyes Israel's position as an ally of the hated colonialist powers. In return, France presented Peres with a handsome gift: the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Even now, Peres considers this his finest achievement.
At the time, Peres announced that the alliance between France and Israel was not based on sordid interests, but on profound common values. Like so many of Peres' immortal statements, this one took less than ten years to be to lose its luster : Charles de Gaulle gave up Algeria, France sought to re-establish its position in the Arab world, relations with Israel were unceremoniously thrown overboard, together with those "profound common values."
AS MINISTER of Defense in the mid-1970s, Peres was the father of the settlements in the central West Bank. He used the settlers to undermine his arch-enemy, Rabin, then his Prime Minister, who objected on principle to the setting up of settlements in the occupied territories.
Next, Peres suddenly emerged as the Man of Peace. Not with the Palestinian people, God forbid, but with King Hussein of Jordan. As Foreign Minister in the coalition cabinet of Yitzhak Shamir, he negotiated a secret agreement with His Majesty, but was immediately overruled by Shamir, who would not dream of making peace with anyone. So that was that.
At that time Peres realized that peace, as an abstract idea, was good for him. He became the prophet of "the New Middle East," endlessly talking about it, doing nothing for it. When Yasser Arafat initiated what became the Oslo Agreement, Peres embraced it enthusiastically and claimed sole authorship. He even invited me to a private meeting in which he lectured me with the zeal of a convert on the merits of the Two State Solution (which I have publicly advocated since 1949).
The practical test came when Rabin was assassinated and Peres took over. For the first time, he was free to act and turn Oslo immediately into a real peace agreement. Instead, he started a war in Lebanon which came to a quick and disastrous end when the artillery caused -- by mistake -- a massacre in Qana. Then he approved the assassination of an important Hamas leader, setting in motion a series of bloody suicide bombings in all major Israeli towns. So Peres lost the elections (again) and Netanyahu came to power.
That was not the end. Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud and founded the Kadima party. After losing his bid for the chairmanship of the Labor Party, Peres left them and joined Kadima. As the inventor of The New Middle East he gave Sharon, the sworn enemy of Palestinian independence, a kosher certificate and played a major role in getting the world to accept him. Now he is performing the same service for Netanyahu, using his position as President and Elder Statesman to convince the world's governments that Netanyahu is at heart a Man of Peace and given time -- much, much time -- he will yet "surprise the world."
AS PRESIDENT of the state, Peres talks endlessly, as he has always done. Yet in all his uncounted millions of words, I have yet to detect a single original idea.
That is by itself a curious state of affairs. Like Ben-Gurion, whom he seeks to imitate, he presents himself as a profound thinker, an intellectual who reads all the important books. One of his former aides claims that he never really reads a book, but has his assistants prepare resumes of their contents, so he can talk about them knowingly. I judge by his style -- a person who reads poetry and literature is bound to reflect some of this in his speeches and writing. Peres' products are uniformly shallow, his Hebrew trite and superficial. No wonder that he is now the most popular leader in Israel.