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Middle East

Shimon Peres's memoir reveals lifelong optimism for peace

© Martin Bureau, AFP | File photo of former Israeli president and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres leaving the Elysee Palace on March 10, 2008, in Paris.

Text by Monique EL-FAIZY

Latest update : 2017-09-30

In many parts of the world, Jewish custom holds that a tombstone be placed on the one-year anniversary of one’s death. For the late Israeli politician Shimon Peres, that anniversary is being marked by the release of his autobiography.

No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel”, is like Peres’ life, a summons to dream big and push for the impossible. For Peres, that dreaming began when he was a young child in a Polish shtetl for whom a Jewish nation was just a distant hope. It continued when he and his family eventually moved to Jaffa, then part of Mandatory Palestine (a British-administered region that paved the way for a Jewish state), in 1934. His dreams took flight when, while still in his 20s, he was tapped by David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, for public service and they took shape in 1948 when Israel was granted statehood.

Peres went on to become a hero of the founding generation of Israeli politicians, to serve as a trusted advisor to Ben-Gurion and in his own right as foreign minister, prime minister and president. Instrumental in the arming of the Israeli Defense Forces and the creation of Israel’s nuclear program, Peres started his career as a hawk but ended it as a dove. “No Room for Small Dreams” is nothing if not a clarion call for peace.

Peres dictated the book in the final months of his life, which ended on September 28, 2016 after he suffered a stroke at the age of 93. In it, Peres touched on the highlights of his life and career, almost all of which involve him taking on seemingly impossible challenges and, through belief, hard work and perseverance, emerging successful.

“My father had a life that is really unbelievable,” his son Nechemia Peres, who is known as Chemi, told FRANCE 24. “It was full of achievement and recognition.”

Several of the book’s anecdotes involve the French government, which in the early days of Israel’s existence, was its most important ally. That close relationship began, the book explains, when, in 1954, Peres realised that Israel’s clandestine arms dealings with Czechoslovakia would not be enough to ensure the nascent nation’s security and standing in the world. For that, Israel would need a Western partner.

“An emotional connection with the French”

Peres ticked through the possibilities: Britain was still treating Israel with ill will and US President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to remain neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peres set his sights on France. “Like the British and the Americans, the French had an embargo in place,” Peres wrote. “But I suspected we could find an emotional connection with the French, one that might persuade them to help us in secret.”

At the time, the Radical Party was in power in France, and many of its leaders had been members of the Resistance and had either lived under Nazi occupation or spent time in concentration camps. “Our scars were not the same, but they were caused by the same evil. In this, I hoped we might find common bond,” he wrote.

Peres was not disappointed. In addition to their emotional ties, Israel and France shared a distrust of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was arming rebels in Algeria, then still a French colony. In Israel’s first arms deal with a major world power, France consented to sell the country long-range cannons, an agreement that expanded to include many other types of weapons, including the fighter aircraft that enabled Israel to win the Six-Day War in 1967.

Over the ensuing years, Peres would learn French and be welcomed into the inner circles of French politics, literature, art and the military.

“He was a Francophile,” Chemi Peres said of his father. “Culture, dining, wine drinking….it really shaped his life and left a tremendous impact. He always talked about his French period. With the French he achieved the success of one of the greatest projects of his life, Dimona.”

Dimona is the familiar name for the Negev Nuclear Research Center. By the 1950s Peres and Ben-Gurion had become convinced that Israel needed nuclear technology in order to be feared by the enemies that surrounded it. Ostensibly, the two wanted a nuclear plant that would allow for water desalination and make up for the country’s lack of oil; in reality, the facility became the site at which Israel developed the nuclear weapons that it has never confirmed it has.

Peres approached the French with his request that they sell Israel a nuclear reactor in October of 1956, when Christian Pineau was foreign minister, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury was defense minister and teams from the two nations were discussing plans to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt. Though the French were already selling Israel weapons in violation of an arms embargo, Peres realised that asking for nuclear capability was a request of an entirely different magnitude. To his surprise, the French agreed.

Getting buy-in from the Israeli political and scientific establishments was another matter. By the time Peres had secured the project on those fronts, Bourgès-Maunoury had become prime minister of France and his young government was beginning to crumble. Peres flew to Paris in the hope of finalising the agreement in the last moments before an expected no-confidence vote by the French parliament. Bourgès-Maunoury agreed to sign, but before he could put pen to paper, his government fell.

A dejected Peres went to see Bourgès-Maunoury the following morning, believing his nuclear plans had been at least temporarily defeated. But Bourgès-Maunoury pulled out a piece of stationary from his desk and drafted a letter to the chairman of the French Atomic Energy Commission confirming that the French government had approved the deal. He signed the letter as France’s Prime Minister and on its top wrote the previous day’s date, when he had still held the office. Israel began construction on the facility a short time later.

Chemi Peres presents his father's book to French President Emmanuel Macron

If the first few decades of Peres’ career were dedicated to assuring Israel’s future through military means, the next were devoted to securing it through peace and innovation. Peres spent the final third of his autobiography detailing the nation’s work to become one of the world’s foremost technology incubators and the efforts that resulted in the signing of the Oslo Accords and the peace deals with Egypt and Jordan.

Peace deal a foregone conclusion

The spirit that led Peres to push adamantly -- and repeatedly -- over decades to establish a peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighbours can seem hard to discern in the current incarnation of the Israeli government. Peres, though, wrote as though an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is a foregone conclusion.

“I believe in the inevitability of peace because I understand the necessity of peace,” he wrote, explaining a few paragraphs later that: “The future of the Zionist project depends on our embrace of the two-state solution. The danger, if Israel abandons this goal, is that the Palestinians will eventually accept a one-state solution. Because of our demographics, this will leave us with a choice: stay Jewish or stay democratic. But it really isn’t a choice at all.”

“He had no doubt that peace will come,” Chemi Peres said of his father. “Given his record and his life, he was used to dealing with things that seemed to be impossible. People did not believe we would ever have a peace with Egypt. Still, we signed a peace agreement after a bitter war with Egypt. We have peace with Jordan. We have the Oslo accords. I do believe that peace will come. This is why I think this book will be a lighthouse for people who think the world is a little bit dark.”

Peres believed and hoped until the very end of his life. “Just before he died, he was asked if he could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Chemi Peres said. “He said, ‘I clearly see the light, even if right now I cannot see the tunnel.’”

“No Room for Small Dreams” will be released in French in November.


Date created : 2017-09-21


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