Ben Gurion famously used to say: ‘In Israel, to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.’ It’s a nice sentiment. But more importantly, it’s also a brilliant piece of propaganda. Ben Gurion understood that, apart from its hard power, Israel has also always relied on an element of soft power: that spark of magic observers could see in the story of Jews returning to their ancient homeland to build a utopian society. Israel the Myth.
No one embodies this unity of realism and myth-making better than Shimon Peres, who recently turned 90. Today people see Peres as the Nobel Prize winning peace-maker; that friendly old man who represents Israel’s Jeremiah, calling from the desert on Israel’s politicians to renew their peaceful ways. But this is not Shimon Peres (not the whole of him, at least).
Never having been a military man himself, Peres at the tender age of 29 became Ben Gurion’s most important political aide. Since operating in that capacity, Peres never left the halls of power (though he was, due to his reputation as a wily political dealer, also never truly embraced by the Israeli public). In his half-a-century spanning career, the smooth-talking Peres pulled off one after the other coup for Israel’s hard interests. It was Peres who in the 1950’s freed Israel from the suffocating US arms embargo by forging close, undercover personal relations with top French politicians, and convincing them to supply Israel with armaments. Similarly, it was Peres who subsequently used these French ties to (allegedly, of course) father Israel’s nuclear program. Finally (and ironically) it was also Shimon Peres who, in an attempt to gain political influence, first lent political support to Israel’s settlers in the West Bank, a fact he now regrets.
All this underscores the dual role Peres has played in Israel’s history: securing, in that quintessential of Israeli ways, “facts-on-the-ground”, while at the same time safeguarding Israel’s image as progressive and enlightened. In this regard we may also reflect on a central failing of Israel’s politicians of the right, including current prime minister Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is an excellent speaker, and an excellent speaker of English, and as such he commands great respect among the world’s conservatives. But Netanyahu is also a factional and polarizing figure: an unmistakable hawk. In this sense, he misses that aspect that has made Peres special– that twinkle in his eye as he says, in a deep voice and slowly for added effect, “Israel is as old as the Bible, and as new as nanotechnology”. Gotta love the guy.