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In the Words of Shimon Peres

The speech was, as it was intended to be, uplifting, hence just right for a nation desperately seeking an energizing transfusion. It was shorter on the clever formulations that have distinguished Shimon Peres’s talks in the past and it was in part diffuse, but again the new president returned to its central motif: Our best days are yet to come; our dreams and our visions have not been and are not today in vain.

I do not envy the Peres biographer, the one charged with pulling together the strands of a life so rich in both achievement and disappointment, so grand at its best and yet marked by pettiness at its worst. But for now, before the summing up is in order, Shimon Peres is so plainly the right man in the right job at the right time that one marvels at history’s rare deftness.

Peres has his share of detractors and even enemies, but it’s a fair bet that even these were braced by his words in the Knesset in Jerusalem on the occasion of his inauguration as Israel’s ninth president.

I first met Peres in 1963, when he was one of Ben Gurion’s wunderkinder, the young men who played critical roles in Israel’s early years. At 26, Peres was already head of the Israel Defense Ministry’s American procurement delegation. (That may not be quite so impressive as it sounds, since there was little that the United States allowed Israel to procure in those days.)

At 30, he became director general of the Defense Ministry, and no one in Israel’s remarkable emergence as a militarily competent power played a more central role than he in that unanticipated transformation. By the time I met him he was deputy defense minister and a Knesset member.

He and Moshe Dayan and several others were often dismissed as “bitzuistim” — literally, people who get things done, but in context, people inadequately tethered by ideology, people too pragmatic to be reliable. It may seem odd to criticize people for their ability to get things done, but Israel in those hectic, even chaotic days, placed a very high premium on ideological purity, believed still that ideology could provide a rudder to guide the ship of state through turbulent waters.

But Peres was not nearly the anti-ideologue that people supposed. More accurately, his was a radically different ideological predisposition from the more romantic socialism of the times. Peres then, as Peres now, was a disciple of modernity.

He meant to modernize the defense establishment, to modernize the economy, to modernize the culture itself. In key respects, he was immensely successful, but in the arena that matters most of all, the arena of peace, his crowning achievement — the Oslo Accords — was a passing moment rather than a harbinger of a new era.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, and it is instructive to compare the speech he gave on the occasion to his inaugural speech. The Nobel lecture is, as might be expected, dramatically and even triumphantly more optimistic, while the optimism of the inaugural speech is softer, gentler, even in some measure elegiac.

From the Nobel lecture: “There was a time when war was fought for lack of choice. Today it is peace that is the ‘no-choice’ option. The reasons of this are profound and incontrovertible. The sources of material wealth and political power have changed. No longer are they determined by the size of territory obtained by war. Today they are a consequence of intellectual potential, obtained principally by education.”

And: “In the five decades of Israel’s existence, our efforts have focused on reestablishing our territorial center. In the future, we shall have to devote our main effort to strengthen our spiritual center. Judaism — or Jewishness — is a fusion of belief, history, land and language. Being Jewish means belonging to a people that is both unique and universal.

“My greatest hope is that our children, like our forefathers, will not make do with the transient and the sham, but will continue to plow the historical Jewish furrow in the field of the human spirit; that Israel will become the center of our heritage, not merely a homeland for our people; that the Jewish people will be inspired by others but at the same be to them a source of inspiration.”

Some of the same themes inform the inaugural address, but the tone is more sober, more modest: “I was a youth and have also aged. My eyes have seen Israel in its most difficult hours and also in moments of achievement and spiritual uplifting. My years place me at an observation point from which the scene of our life as a reviving nation is seen, spread out in all its glory.

“It is true that in the picture stains also appear. It is true that we have gone astray and have erred — but please believe me — there is no room for melancholy. Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer of his people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state.

“And also, if sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today, the day seems suddenly gray, the president whom you have chosen, will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding — because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come!”

It’s well worth reading the entire text, and then to say: Amen.


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