Shimon Peres: From Dimona to Oslo

Written by: Yael S. Aronoff

Source: Chatham House (https://www.flickr.com/photos/chathamhouse/)

“Peres has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive” said President Obama in 2012 upon bestowing Shimon Peres the Medal of Freedom. And while the world mourns our loss, it is worthwhile to reflect on the startling trajectory of Peres’s career, and the remarkable traits that allowed him to shift from a hawk who led the buildup of the Israeli military — most famously, he was one of the initiators of Israel’s nuclear military facility in Dimona — to the dove who became Israelis foremost visionary for peace with the Palestinians, receiving the Nobel peace prize for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat in 1993. Peres shift in perception can be traced in the titles of his books: in 1970 he wrote David’s Sling, in which he emphasizing Israel’s defense buildup. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wrote books with titles like Battling for Peace and The New Middle East, emphasizing Israel’s need to take the initiative in making peace with its neighbors.

What allowed Peres to change his mind so radically?  As I discuss in my book The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers, Peres exhibited several traits that make it more likely that leaders will be able to change their perceptions of long-standing conflicts.  Among them are an orientation toward the future rather than the past, cognitive flexibility, a willingness to take risks, and an openness to the influence of key advisors.  These traits allowed Peres to shift from relying on deterrence alone, to believing that creating mutual shared interests were vital to peace and security. As early as 1982, after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Peres perceived Israel to be sufficiently strong to negotiate Palestinian issues and decided – at a time when this was unheard of in Israeli politics, and a full 10 years before Yitzhak Rabin reached this conclusion — that eventually Israel would have to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization. This shift was enabled in part by Peres’ ability to perceive changes in the present and extrapolate their significance for the future.  He believed, for example, that changes in military technology meant that territory was no longer as important for strategic depth. Whereas in the past the best defense from a tank attack was more land – which would afford more time for preparation and lessen risks – that same land would not protect one from nuclear weapons, missiles, and terrorism and that therefore diplomacy was the best way to achieve national security. Shimon Peres was an open-minded visionary who adapted his worldview and policy preferences to perceived future trends and to new ideas.

Once his perspective shifted, Shimon Peres enthusiastically propelled the Oslo peace process forward, and continued over the ensuing decades to believe that a peace agreement was an urgent Israeli priority. He kept this sense of urgency during the violent years of the second intifada from 2000-2005, despite his disapproval of Arafat’s role in inciting the violence. The peace process, he maintained, was “as necessary as air was to breathe.”   In 2008, after the violent Hamas coup in Gaza, Peres remained optimistic:  “Never in the past 100 years,” he intoned, “have we been closer to peace than we are today. We will not cease to negotiate with the Palestinians and help them with all our might in order to establish an independent Palestinian state with a real economy.”[1] While the upheavals in the Middle East in the past several years strengthened current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sense of caution and risk aversion regarding peace negotiations, for Peres they strengthened his sense of urgency to pursue peace.

Despite the stunning accomplishments of his life, Peres was unable to finalize the peace he worked so hard to build. However, he made his one-time radical assumption – that there will be a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine and that there will be two states – the accepted, conventional wisdom of the international community, and of most Israelis and Palestinians since Oslo. Leaders would be wise to honor Peres’s legacy by returning to peace negotiations and taking constructive steps to rekindle faith in the peace process.

[1] Tovah Lazaroff, “Peres and Guests Debate Peace Prospects,” Haaretz, October 28, 2008.

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About the Author: Yael S. Aronoff

Yael S. Aronoff is the Michael and Elaine Serling Chair in Israel Studies and Associate Professor of International Relations at James Madison College. She is a recipient of the Michigan State University 2011 Teacher Scholar Award and is also Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University. Professor Aronoff's work has been publish...

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