There are no more Israeli giants left. Shimon Peres was the last one, and he died yesterday at 93. In history books, his name should be listed alongside those of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Moshe Dayan as one of those Israeli leaders who built the country through hard work even as they remained committed to a larger vision. But in many ways, Peres belongs in his own category; apart from Ben-Gurion, the father and first prime minister of Israel, none of the other giants changed the course of the country’s history in so many issue areas: defense, the occupation of the West Bank, the economy, and the peace process. Peres remained a figure apart for other reasons as well, kept there certainly by his own actions but also by the persistent belief of his fellow citizens that he was too manipulative, too cunning to be a “real” Israeli; as the Haaretz journalist Chemi Shalev put it, he never even “looked like an Israeli,” resembling an eastern European rather than a Middle Easterner. What makes such attitudes so surprising is that Peres was Israel; he grew and matured in tandem with the Jewish state.
Peres was a flawed leader, full of contradictions. He was a visionary who helped make Israel a nuclear power and was the primary architect of its powerful, self-sufficient defense industry. But he often engaged in crass political maneuvering in order to hold on to power. As minister of defense he facilitated some of the first Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the mid-1970s. Then, in the 1990s and in the first decade of this century, he became their primary opponent. He began his political career as a hawk and ended it as the country’s definitive dove. He started out as a socialist but, in the 1980s, initiated the country’s shift toward free-market capitalism as a way of getting past hyperinflation.
Peres stuck to the principles he believed in but could not