Marking his eighty-seventh birthday this week, Israel's president flew to Cairo for a two-hour meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, captured headlines in Britain for his frank talk about British attitudes toward Jews and Zionism, visited bereaved military families, and welcomed new North American immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport. Perceived not so long ago as among Israel's most polarizing and untrustworthy figures, Shimon Peres nowadays enjoys unprecedented status. A politician who once mercilessly undermined prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin stands loyally behind Benjamin Netanyahu while speaking publicly as an above-the-fray statesman.
Peres has been an element of the political landscape since settling in Palestine from Belarus in 1934. As a young man he became active in left-wing Zionist politics and helped procure arms for the fledgling Haganah. At independence in 1948, David Ben-Gurion placed him in the defense ministry, where for years he fulfilled key roles. Along the way, he became a Knesset member and a founder of today's Labor party, although his rivalries within Labor over the decades have been no less vitriolic than his ideological disputes with the Right. Mapai's Moshe Sharett despised him. Rabin profoundly distrusted him.
As the latter's foreign minister in the early 1990's, Peres initiated negotiations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles with the PLO in September 1993. That won a Nobel Peace Prize for him, Rabin, and Yasir Arafat. Prior to the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, Peres assured Israel's cabinet that Palestinian intentions toward Israel had completely changed.
In the event, Israel's terror-related casualties since Oslo exceeded those of the preceding half-century. But Peres was undeterred. Intoxicated by Oslo's potential, he took to speaking in often impenetrable aphorisms ("We must strive for fewer weapons and more faith"), as if willing the peace that Arafat conspicuously declined to enter into, insisting that it was simplistic to judge the Palestinian commitment to peace by Arafat's performance.
After Rabin's 1995 assassination, Peres served seven months as prime minister before being swept from power. Rejected by the electorate, he was embraced by European countries that provided the wherewithal to establish him at the head of the Peres Center for Peace. In 2000, he suffered another embarrassing defeat when the Knesset rejected him for the presidency in favor of an obscure figure, Moshe Katsav. Yet he was back in 2001 during the second intifada as foreign minister in another national-unity government, this one headed by Ariel Sharon. In the aftermath of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, he joined Sharon's newly formed Kadima party and in 2007 was finally elected president after Katsav resigned.
These days, Peres is honored both for redeeming a presidency sullied by his predecessor and as the embodiment of an organic link to the founders' generation. In between a hectic schedule that has taken him on 27 state visits abroad, he has managed to complete a biography of his mentor and hero David Ben-Gurion. While hardly ever looking back, seldom admitting mistakes, and never showing remorse, the man once described in a New York Times profile as "one of Israel's most mocked figures, considered an eternal loser and dreamer who harmed his career and reputation through selfishness, timidity, vanity, and political deafness" has somehow rehabilitated his public persona.
Historians will have to work on a big canvas in assessing Peres's achievements. He was crucially responsible for building Israel's nuclear deterrent, keeping the country well-armed, and in the mid-1980s, bringing down runaway inflation. Yet any balanced appraisal of his career must make sense of what many now agree was a staggering if not inexcusable strategic blunder: transplanting Arafat and his ethically corrupt, politically unreconstructed, and violently intransigent cadre from their Tunis exile to the helm of a nascent Palestinian polity in Ramallah, at the cost to Israeli society of untold trauma and civilian blood, and in exchange not for peace but for war.
Never having provided a convincing explanation for his turn from security mandarin to flighty dove, Peres is now back in the political center. Longtime observers may be forgiven for wondering whether, were he to live long enough, and were further opportunities to beckon, he might not re-make himself yet again for the sake of the limelight.
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