Cross-posted from Gush Shalom
IF THERE is a God, he surely has a sense of humor. The career of Shimon Peres, who is about to finish his term as President of Israel, is clear evidence.
Here is a life-long politician, who has never won an election. Here is the world-renowned Man of Peace, who has started several wars and never done anything for peace. Here is the most popular political figure in Israel who for most of his life was hated and despised.
Once, several decades ago, I wrote an article about him with the title "Mr. Sisyphus." Sisyphus, it will be remembered, was condemned for all eternity to roll a heavy rock to the top of a hill, and each time when he was nearing his goal the stone slipped from his hands and rolled down again.
That has been the story of Peres' life -- until now. God, or whoever, has obviously decided: enough is enough.
IT STARTED when he was a boy in a small Polish town. Many times he complained to his mother that the other pupils in the (Jewish) school were beating him up for no reason. His younger brother, Gigi, had to defend him.
He arrived in Palestine in 1934, a year after me, as a boy of 11 (he is five weeks older than I). His father sent him to the agricultural school in Ben Shemen, a children's village that was a Zionist indoctrination center. There the Polish Persky became the Hebrew Peres and joined the Noar Oved ("working youth"), the main youth organization of the ruling Mapai party. As was usual then, he was sent to a kibbutz.
That's where his political career started. Mapai split into two, and so did its youth movement. The young and active joined "Faction 2," the left-wing section. Peres, by now an instructor, was among the few who wisely remained with Mapai, and thus attracted the attention of the party leaders.
The reward came soon. The 1948 war broke out. Everybody in our age group hastened to join the fighting forces in what appeared to be literally a fight for life or death. Peres was sent abroad by Ben-Gurion to buy arms. An important task, no doubt, but one that could have been done by a 70- year old.
The fact that Peres did not serve in the army at this fateful juncture was not forgotten and earned him the contempt of our generation for decades.
I MET him for the first time when we were 30 -- he was already the Director General of the Ministry of Defense and the darling of Ben-Gurion, I was the editor in chief of a popular opposition magazine. It was not a case of love at first sight.
In his powerful position, young Peres was a determined war-monger. During the early 50s, his ministry ordered an unending chain of "retaliation actions" whose aim was to keep the country on a war footing. Arab refugees who returned at night to their villages were killed, Jews were killed in return, and unofficial units of the army crossed the armistice lines to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to kill civilians and soldiers in turn.
When the atmosphere was ripe, Ben Gurion and Peres started the 1956 Suez war. The Algerian people rose up against their French colonial masters. Unable to admit that they were facing a genuine war of liberation, the French blamed the young Egyptian leader, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser. In collusion with another declining colonial power, Great Britain, the French conspired with Israel to attack Nasser. It ended in a mess, but Peres and Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan were celebrated in Israel as heroes, the men of the future.
The French showed their gratitude. For his services, Peres received a military atomic reactor in Dimona. Peres still boasts of being the father of Israel's nuclear armament.
HIS CAREER was clearly heading for the top. Ben-Gurion appointed him Deputy Minister, and he was destined to become Minister of Defense, the second most powerful position in Israel, when disaster struck. The querulous Old Man quarreled with his party and was thrown out. Peres followed. The rock rolled down to the bottom.
Ben-Gurion insisted on founding a new party, and dragged an unwilling Peres after him. With indefatigable energy, Peres "plowed" the country, went from village to village and from town to town, and the "Rafi" party took shape. Yet with all its array of celebrities, it won only ten Knesset seats. (The peace party I founded at the same time got a seventh of their number of votes.)
As a member of a small opposition party, Peres was vegetating. The future seemed dark, when Nasser came to the rescue. He sent his army into Sinai, war fever reached a frenzied pitch and the public decided that Ben-Gurion's successor, Levy Eshkol, must give up his position as Minister of Defense. Several names were mentioned. High on the list was Peres.