Shimon Peres’ defeat this week in the presidential election was symbolic of a much more significant defeat the previous week. Camp David revealed that the Oslo Accords, of which Peres was the principal architect, was flawed from its inception by the lack of a partner equally committed to peace.
At Camp David, Barak offered Arafat far more than anyone, Arab or Jew, could have ever dreamed possible at Oslo. Yet Arafat wouldn’t or couldn’t accept, proving that he never envisioned an end to the Arabs’ hundred year war with Zionism.
The Arabs are willing to wait, confident that yet more will still be offered, and that what is not wrested at the bargaining table will yet be gained by other means. Nor have they ever made any bones about this.
Shortly after the Oslo signing, Arafat spoke to Arab audiences of jihad (which Peres interpreted as a "jihad for peace") and reminded them that Mohammed too had entered into peace treaties with infidels as a prelude to subsequent military victory. He conveyed the same message by eulogizing as a holy martyr "the Engineer," the man responsible for the murder of over fifty Israelis.
Palestinian TV continues to educate Palestinian children that Palestine encompasses all of Israel – Acre, Jaffa, Tiberias, Jerusalem. No Palestinian Authority map shows Israel; its textbooks continue to call for the eradication of the Zionist entity; and in its summer camps, eight-year-olds receive paramilitary training in killing Jews.
Yet our Prime Minister tells us, "I’m not interested in what the Palestinians say, but only in agreements." That’s like putting down one’s life savings on a retirement home in Florida knowing in advance that the seller has five previous convictions for mail fraud.
Shimon Peres has long been the most eloquent spokesman for this particular form of looniness. In The New Middle East, he pronounced traditional military strategy – troop mobilizations, location of battlefields – to be irrelevant, and hotels more vital to national security than armies. He famously looked forward to the day in which Israel joins the Arab League.
Charles Krauthammer correctly pronounced that vision, "A lovely dream. And quite mad, " not to mention one in which the Jews are the only people in the region to believe.
Peres actually acted upon that vision. Oslo was signed without any consultation with the military. (Then Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak, was horrified when he first saw the Oslo Accords.) The Peres Foreign Ministry made a top priority of securing U.S. aid for the PLO, Egypt, and Syria..
No one doubts that as president Peres would have continued to actively espouse his vision of the New Middle East around the world. Presumably, then, those who do not share Peres’ view that the wolf and the sheep are ready to lie down together were entitled to vote for his opponent.
The presidency, after all, is not a prize for life achievement, and MKs were not obligated to ratify the judgment of the Stockholm committee that annointed Peres with the Nobel Peace Prize. Ezer Weizman’s tenure amply demonstrates the large potential for presidential mischiefmaking.
In 1983, when Likud was in power and the distinguished jurist Menachem Elon was defeated for the presidency by the late Chaim Herzog, the papers were not filled with cries of treachery or demands for an open presidential ballot. Then it was assumed to be part of the natural order of things that the presidency belongs to the old elites.
Today, however, those who confidently predicted Peres’ victory have reacted to his defeat with hysterical hyperbole: Nachum Barnea likened Katsav’s victory to the Rabin assassination, and a front-page "analysis" in this paper proclaimed the end of Zionism, forgetting that Peres’ The New Middle East is itself a profoundly post-Zionist work.
The religious parties are accused of gross betrayal, as if Peres only decided to run for president after first securing Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s solemn promise of support or was the first person ever to lose an election he expected to win. Yet it is hardly suprising that most MKs of Shas, a party founded on the theme of restoring Sephardi pride and Torah learning, voted for a candidate whose own life can serve as an emblem of Sephardi pride and who is mitzvah-observant. Had they done otherwise they would have had a lot to explain to their voters. Nor is it suprising that religious MKs did not ignore the fact those most ardently supporting Peres have shown even greater ardor in attacking the religious.
Still I could have understood a decision by the chareidi parties to support Peres. There is a great deal of truth in the remark attributed to Rabbi Yosef: "Katsav is mitzvah-observant, but Peres will protect the mitzvah-observant"
I confess to harboring warm feelings for Peres and to empathizing with his pain. That warmth begins with physiognimy. Will such a face of the classic Eastern European Jewish intellectual, combining intelligence, sensitivity and nobility ever grace our political scene again?
Peres is the last of our politicians still connected to the European milieu and with a warm spot in his heart for Yiddishkeit. Rabbi Alexander Linchner, builder of the magnificent Boys Town campus in Jerusalem, once told me how tears would well up in the eyes of Pinchas Sapir, Israel’s first economic czar, when he came to visit the campus. "Today," he added, "there is no one to talk to."
Peres was a younger throwback to Sapir’s generation. He always attributed his many achievements to a childhood blessing from the venerable Torah sage the Chafetz Chaim. Over the years, he has enthusiastically supported Aish HaTorah’s Jerusalem Fellowships program and other Torah institutions where he had nothing to gain politically. And he has often proven a acute observer of Israel’s social fissures whose insights on such subjects as the danger of marrying Judaism to nationalism bear careful consideration.
Peres is perhaps the last secular politician able to relate to religious Jews with respect born of knowledge and not just as a horsetrader. For that alone his ongoing influence will be deeply missed.