Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, was perhaps the most intellectually curious leader in the history of modern Zionism, second only to his legendary mentor, David Ben-Gurion.
With little formal education, he embodied the true spirit of science and the advancement of knowledge. He was relentlessly curious about people, places, trends, social phenomenon, politics, thought and the future. His obsession with the future earned him, unjustly in my humble opinion, the reputation of a “daydreamer” whose ideas were often detached from reality.
There is no doubt that after his unprecedented long and productive public career, which spanned over 73 years (including 57 years in politics), Shimon Peres will continue to intrigue generations of historians, researchers and pundits, who will undoubtedly attempt to assess his legacy and historical contributions to the revival of national Jewish life in the Holy Land.
Countless books, academic papers and press articles will be published in the coming days, weeks and months, attempting to tackle the question of his legacy.
I’d like to provide my own very personal view of Peres’s legacy.
I recently retired from Israel’s foreign service after 25 years.
When I joined the Foreign Affairs Ministry, as a young cadet in the summer of 1991, I did not expect to find myself, less that 18 months later, working with the foreign minister himself, accompanying him to the White House on September 13, 1993, for the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO.
An encounter organized by his then chief of staff, Avi Gil, led to my joining his newly appointed director-general and soon to become Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians in Oslo, Uriel Savir.
The next 18 months became the absolute highlight of my diplomatic career. I attended countless meetings with Peres, observing him in action, as he negotiated, pushed, articulated and promoted Israel’s interests with leaders from all over the world. Being part of this dramatic diplomatic undertaking will remain with me forever.
What had I learned about Peres by observing him in action? What was his legacy from my vantage point? First, the 93-year-old statesman understood what many younger people fail to understand: We live in a world where the only constant, the only permanent feature, is change.
Peres embraced change. He was never intimidated by it.
On the contrary. For him, the embrace of change was a way of life. In an extremely sophisticated fashion and with a rare talent for copy-writing, he consistently defined and redefined the boundaries of our national and public conversation.
From national security matters (such as the nuclear issue or water scarcity and desertification) all the way to the introduction of nanotechnology and advancements in brain research – he was the ultimate agenda-setter, amazingly always on top of things.
Second, his embrace of change and the opportunities that comes with it was tightly related to his healthy preoccupation with the future.
Indeed, the past was there, always part of his thought, largely thanks to his phenomenal memory for names, dates and places. But Peres never allowed the past to dictate the future. In the best tradition of Labor Zionist activism he sought an operational position in order to shape a better future. I do not recall not even one conversation with him that did not involve his vision for the future.
Third, as a true disciple of David Ben-Gurion, Peres possessed the ability to maintain a healthy balance between risks and opportunities. I often heard him speak of how hopeless the situation seemed back in 1948, prior to Ben-Gurion’s decision to send him to New York in an effort to raise money and support for the struggling Hagana. Clearly, his inspiration came from the profound and far-reaching historical outlook of David Ben-Gurion’s decision to proclaim independence in May of 1948, against the advice of many of his peers. Peres observed his mentor and internalized his worldview.
One cannot run a nation or manage a government without striking a balance between risk and opportunity.
Fourth, like his mentor David Ben-Gurion, Peres always surrounded himself with extremely capable people. It is hard to imagine Israeli diplomacy and politics without names such as the late Yossi Sarid, Yossi Beilin, Nimrod Novik, Uriel Savir and Avi Gil – all groomed in one way or another by Peres.
He was never afraid of their independent thought, and in many occasions, accepted their ideas and initiatives.
Another aspect of his relationships with his inner circle was his exceptional loyalty to the people that joined him for his incredible journey.
For example, his caring relationships with his longtime friends the late, Elhanan Yishai and Haim Israeli, or his personal attention to his many friends from Mapai, Rafi and the Alignment and, of course, his childhood friends. He truly cared about them all.
And lastly, Peres will be forever remembered as the true embodiment of Israel’s creative spirit. He managed to broaden the concept of the “Start-Up Nation” beyond technology. With no formal training in marketing, he instinctively understood that Israel, as a brand, represents more than technological innovation. He understood it is about the broader “creative spirit” of our nation, the permission to ask questions, refusal to accept limitations, and the willingness to challenge authority and shape a new reality. If you will, Peres was the ultimate brand champion of Israel as a “Can- Do Nation,” an unparalleled motivator and catalyst of our people’s creative energy.
Peres understood that in today’s world of tough competition between nations and places, it is no less important for Israel to be attractive than to be right. Indeed, he could articulate policy guidelines as passionately and convincingly as any other leader in the history of Zionism. But he also uniquely understood the importance of positioning the Zionist enterprise in the right context: forward-looking, creative, optimistic, forthcoming, inclusive, pragmatic and productive.
With his passing, Israel lost its ultimate, most current, articulate and up-to-date brand champion.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni is a global distinguished professor at New York University. He served under Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres as policy assistant to the chief negotiator with the Palestinians (1993-94). Aharoni was a 25-year veteran of Israel’s Foreign service, including a six-year posting as Israel's longest serving consul-general in New York.
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