Commentary

The Legacy of Shimon Peres

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

Last week’s passing of Shimon Peres has prompted many in the regional media to examine the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the context of the Israeli statesman’s legacy. Unsurprisingly, there are contrasting and opposing viewpoints on the substance of that legacy, with both Israeli and Arab commentators expressing reservations about some of Mr. Peres’s most notable policies. Also debated in the regional media was the decision of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to attend the funeral service of his erstwhile political opponent — a gesture criticized by many in Palestine, but appreciated in Israel.

In an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Smada Perry provides a complicated, but overall positive, image of Mr. Peres: “He was an optimist and not a naïve one. He was stuck in a dream about the new neighborhood that could be formed here — if only his plans would be adopted. ... Peres pursued peace with all his might. When the door was slammed in his face, he searched for a window. When the window was closed, he tried to squeeze through a narrower gap. He had 101 solutions to every issue. But the other side did not miss an opportunity to give him a hard time and shatter his dreams.”

The Turkish writer Guven Sak reflects on his many interactions with the Israeli leader, including their joint efforts to provide economic solutions to seemingly intractable problems, although in his Hurriyet Daily News op-ed, Mr. Sak is quick to point out that Mr. Peres was under no illusion that, at its core, the Israeli-Palestinian disagreements were and are political: “As far as I know, our effort was one of many pet topics of Shimon Peres — privatizing the peace process, border estates, electricity supply, cement, cultural programs, imagining the future. Much of these projects failed, some of them — like ours — are still busily working away at the problem. Does this mean that Peres was naive? I don’t think so. He was a realist. I remember him saying, ‘The problem of the Middle East is not economic but political. So the issue at hand requires a political solution not an economic one.’ That’s not always easy for economists to hear.”

But across the Jordan River, many, including Jordan Times’s Musa Keilani, consider Peres’s legacy to be one of nuclear menace and the “failure of the Oslo accords”: “For Arabs, Peres, who passed away last week, did not leave a legacy as a man of peace.  In the case of the Palestinians, he was the first Israeli official to endorse building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Being guided by the image of David Ben Gurion, his mentor and father figure, Peres wanted to build a second Israel, just as Ben Gurion built in 1948 the present day Israel. But the Israel he wanted to build was founded on newly dreamed designs of nuclear arms, which he negotiated with the French government, and Israel succeeded in manufacturing 22 atomic bombs that threaten Arab capitals. ... Peres is partially guilty for the abysmal failure of the Oslo accords, which did not restore peace or prosperity to the occupied territories. Though he won the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, he failed to project the image of a true lover of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

This Saudi Gazette editorial also seeks to remind readers of the darker chapters in Mr. Peres’s history, arguing that he was “not a man of peace”: “The tributes that poured in and the world leaders who attended his funeral portrayed Shimon Peres as a man of peace, but he was also instrumental in directing the worst of Israeli policies. ... [Peres’s] reputation was blighted forever by Qana, the 1996 shelling in southern Lebanon that killed more than 100 people sheltering in a UN compound. It took place when, as prime minister, he ordered the so-called Grapes of Wrath operation against Beirut  in retaliation for Lebanese Hezbollah’s escalated rocket fire on northern Israel. ... Peres did indeed personify the history of Israel because he was at the forefront of every phase of it. But during the time in which the light shone on him the most, he was certainly not a man of peace.”

Arab commentators are not the only ones taking aim at Mr. Peres’s legacy. Writing for the Israeli Arutz Sheva, Martin Sherman suggests that Mr. Peres will be most remembered for his failures, rather than his achievements, in his long career as a public servant: “[I]t has not been Peres’s successes — but his failures — that have catapulted him to international stardom. It was not his impressive accomplishments in the service of his nation that brought him global celebrity status, but the disastrous fiascoes in the pursuit of his wildly unrealistic illusions. Thus, it was the disastrous Oslo Accords — which have long since imploded into bloody ruin — that brought him the 1994 Nobel Peace prize. Likewise, it was his lofty vision of a ‘New Middle East’ — with peace and prosperity stretching from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf — that caught the imagination of so many — but now, with the descent of today’s Middle East into carnage and chaos, appears nothing but a ludicrous delusion.”

While many reflected on Mr. Peres’s achievements and failures, others noted the news that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was attending the funeral. The Jerusalem Post editorial board reacted positively to this good-will gesture, characterizing his attendance as an act of statesmanship: “Abbas’s participation was an important step that should be appreciated by Israel and the Netanyahu government. The only response so far was a Facebook post by Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who slammed Abbas and Israelis who lined up to shake the hand of a man who he said ‘encourages the murder of Israelis.’ We disagree. Abbas took an important step on Friday, especially considering the criticism that he faced from among his own people. His decision to attend Peres’s funeral was important and sent a message not only different than the way Bennett portrayed him but also important as a step in changing Palestinian perception. Nevertheless, Abbas should know this act alone will not be enough. He needs to take real steps to stop incitement, violence and educate his people to not hate Jews or Israelis.”

Mr. Abbas’s gesture was also emulated by representatives of the Israeli-Arab community, though Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset chose to not attend Mr. Peres’s funeral ceremony: “A delegation of at least 20 Israeli-Arab council heads arrived at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on Sunday to pay a shiva call to the family of the late Shimon Peres, two days after his funeral in Jerusalem was boycotted by the 13-member Joint (Arab) List party, which claims to represent Israel’s Arab community. ... The Joint List party announced Thursday that its members would not participate in the funeral, citing a ‘complicated’ history. ‘We came here in the name of the Arab community and in the name of all of the Israeli-Arab regional councils to participate in the mourning of Shimon Peres and to express our condolences to the family, may his memory be a blessing,’ said Mazen Ghanem, the mayor of Sakhnin and chairman of the Arab Councils Forum, adding that the Joint List’s boycott of the funeral did not represent Israeli-Arabs.”

Times of Israel contributor Avi Issacharoff is complimentary of Mr. Abbas, especially considering the opposition that Mr. Abbas faces at home and the decision of other Arab heads-of-state not to attend: “There are many issues one can criticize Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about. ... But sometimes Abbas also deserves praise. On Friday, at the funeral of the late former president Shimon Peres, he was the only Arab leader who had the courage to show up. This was an act of political, diplomatic and personal bravery. ... His decision, seen by some in Fatah as cowardly, stands out even more considering that Abbas’s standing among the Palestinian public has never been worse. A full two-thirds would like to see him retire. There is bad blood between him and some Fatah heavyweights like Mohammed Dahlan. ... The mess Abbas needs to deal with at home for the ‘crime’ of attending the funeral emphasizes to what degree the rulers of Egypt and Jordan behaved like good politicians but failed as leaders, in that they decided to send ministers in their stead. The complexity of internal politics makes their decision understandable and perhaps forgivable. By contrast, it is hard — almost inconceivable — to understand the conduct of MKs from the Joint (Arab) List headed by Ayman Odeh. And it is appropriate, once in a while, to praise Abbas.”

According to a statement reported on by the Palestinian website Ma’an News, Mr. Abbas chose to attend the funeral proceedings to show that the Palestinians were willing to engage in a peaceful and constructive dialogue: “Abbas’ Fatah movement, the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority (PA) said in a statement that Abbas’ presence at the funeral was part of his responsibilities as president, particularly at such a widely watched event. The head of Fatah’s media committee, Munir al-Jaghoub, said that Abbas’ attendance would disprove Israeli claims that Palestinians only believe in violence, and that going showed his responsibility as a leader....However, the Hamas movement had urged Abbas not to go to Peres’ funeral, saying that such a move would encourage normalization with Israel to the detriment of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the Popular Resistance Committees condemned the presence of Abbas, as well as Arab and Islamic delegations, at the funeral, saying that paying respects to one of Israel’s ‘biggest criminals’ was ‘disregarding the feelings and sacrifices of the Palestinian people’ and gave Israel ‘a pass for its crimes’.”

That message of being willing to do what is necessary to pursue peace is also reflected in a recent Khaleej Times editorial, which contrasts Mr. Abbas’s willingness to attend the funeral ceremony with Israel’s intransigence and unwillingness to extend the hand of peace and friendship: “[A]n aide to Palestinian president said that Abbas could ‘go anywhere to achieve peace’. This shows that it is only Israel that skirts any move to revive the peace process while it continues to build settlements on Palestinian land. It shows the Tel Aviv's intransigence and defiance of the international community as it violates every rule in the book. The Jewish state is not concerned about human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories where the colonial forces continue to kill mostly the youth in the name of security. This is a cold, calculated move to instill fear in the minds of the Palestinians. ... It's high time that Tel Aviv stopped the indiscriminate building of settlements on the occupied Palestinian lands. On the Palestinian side, the Hamas leadership and the Fatah party should work towards unity for a common cause - an independent state. Nothing else will suffice.”


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