Mr. Peres once told me that engaging in peace talks is like being an airplane pilot. The pilot’s mother wants him to fly low and slow, but that’s a recipe for disaster. In order to make peace, you need to fly high and fast, otherwise you will crash and fail. Unfortunately, Mr. Peres did not take his own advice.Continue reading the main story
Crucially, Israel persisted in building settlements on occupied land that was supposed to be part of a Palestinian state, and even expanded the program. Under Mr. Peres’s tenure as foreign minister, defense minister and prime minister during the early days of the Oslo process in the 1990s, Israel continued to create facts on the ground that undermined the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Palestinians believed was the aim of the peace process.
In the case of Jerusalem, in 1993 Mr. Peres promised me and the Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini that Israel would respect the integrity of Palestinian institutions in occupied East Jerusalem and allow them to remain open. He went so far as to send a letter to Norway’s foreign minister, Johan Holst, with his assurances. Yet when Israel shut down the P.L.O.’s Jerusalem headquarters, the Orient House, and other major Palestinian institutions in 2001, Mr. Peres, who was once again foreign minister, this time under the hard-liner Ariel Sharon, did nothing.
As the world turned its attention to other conflicts, thinking the Oslo process would lead to peace, Palestinians saw Israel’s occupation become more entrenched, rather than being dismantled. In addition to accelerating settlement growth, under Mr. Peres’s direction, Israel imposed new restrictions on Palestinians and their freedom of movement. After seven years of negotiations, during which the situation of Palestinians deteriorated steadily, growing disillusionment and despair that Israel was using the peace process as cover to steal more Palestinian land led to the outbreak of the second intifada.
While Palestinians certainly made mistakes, Israel, as the stronger and occupying power, held most of the cards during the Oslo process. This imbalance was worsened by the American mediators, who frequently acted more like “Israel’s lawyer,” as one of them later wrote, than fair and neutral referees.
Finally, the Oslo process failed because Mr. Peres and other Israeli leaders never fully accepted the concept of a truly independent state alongside Israel. Rather than a dismantling of the occupation and an evolution of Palestinian independence as initially envisioned, successive Israeli governments ended up undermining Palestinian statehood and reinventing the occupation as an unaccountable system of control and expansion.
If Mr. Peres had acted swiftly and decisively in pursuit of peace upon assuming power after the 1995 assassination of Mr. Rabin by an Israeli extremist opposed to Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, Oslo might have been salvaged. Instead, he attempted to compete with the right-wing Likud Party on its terms. This culminated in the Qana massacre, when Lebanese civilians sheltering in a United Nations compound were shelled by Israeli artillery, during the bloody attack on Lebanon that he ordered shortly before the 1996 election. As a result, many in Israel who genuinely supported peace lost faith in Mr. Peres, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, and he lost the election.
Of course, Palestinians’ faith in Mr. Peres had been tested before. Not forgotten by Palestinians and others in the region is the role that he played arming the Israeli forces that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948; the regional nuclear arms race he incited by initiating Israel’s secret atomic weapons program in the 1950s and ’60s; his responsibility for establishing some of the first Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the ’70s; his public discourse as a minister in Likud-led coalitions, justifying Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and extremist ideology; and his final role in Israeli politics as president, serving as a fig leaf for the radically pro-settler government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Indeed, it was Mr. Netanyahu’s rise to prime minister in 1996 that torpedoed any lingering hopes for peace. A few years later, he would be caught on video boasting to a group of settlers that he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”
After the collapse of the Oslo process and the ensuing violence, the dual myths of the “generous offer” made to Mr. Arafat at Camp David and the claim that there was no Palestinian partner for peace took hold in Israel. This narrative helped fuel a rising tide of right-wing extremism that continues to this day. Mr. Peres himself helped to perpetuate these myths as foreign minister under Mr. Sharon, doing tremendous damage to subsequent efforts to restart negotiations.
Over the past decade, the Labor Party that Mr. Peres once led has become all but irrelevant as a diluted version of the Likud. At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line, rejectionist Likud and even more extreme parties have come to dominate Israeli politics, generating a toxic mix of racism, religious messianism and hyper-nationalism.
It’s true that compared with Mr. Netanyahu and other contemporary Israeli politicians, Mr. Peres was a dove, but that’s saying very little. In order to truly measure the man, he must be judged on his actions, not his words and reputation — nor, indeed, in comparison to the dangerous right-wing fanatics who now make up Israel’s government.
Regardless of the flaws in the process, the pursuit of peace remains a noble endeavor. But Mr. Peres’s failure to translate lofty ideals into action continues to haunt that elusive quest in Palestine and Israel.