Shimon Peres and his ‘new’ Middle East fallacy

Shimon Peres’s funeral today will be attended by prominent global leaders. The reason is that to certain parts of the political establishment in Europe and the United States, Peres represents a figure of peace in a war-ravaged region. But among almost everyone else – in the region and worldwide – he is not seen to have been so benign. The difference in perception about Peres speaks a great deal about the narrative of the Arab world, the wider Middle East, how the region views itself and, indeed, how the world views it.

As the tributes came in this week for the former Israeli president, there were accolades from the likes of Barack Obama, former US president Bill Clinton, and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Peres won a Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for his part in the Oslo Accords of 1993 – and this cemented his reputation in the West as a peacemaker. That those Accords are today thoroughly discredited, and the peace process is inactive, does not seem to affect that assessment.

Such disjunctures are also apparent in, for example, the issue of Israeli settlements. While settlements on Palestinian territories that Israel occupied in 1967 are illegal in international law and a barrier to peace, Peres is remembered in settler communities on the West Bank as a pioneer.

In Ofra, a settlement near Ramallah, settlers eulogised Peres as helping to found their settlement.

In the Israeli press itself, one might find less of a dissonance. As one of the obituaries in the mainstream Israeli press went: “As prime minister he ordered Operation Grapes of Wrath, possibly for electoral reasons, and it was under his watch that the Israeli Army committed the Qana massacre in South Lebanon, in which over a hundred Palestinians were killed”. That same massacre took place in 1996, not much more than two years after the vaunted Oslo Accords, which earned Peres his reputation as a peacemaker.

If one wonders why that assessment of him remains, one might look to that same obituary by Israeli writer Chemi Shalev: “He was the Israel that everyone wanted it to be, rather than the country that actually is.”

So many, it seems, want to read into Peres something that was historically different from what he was – and thus read something into Israel something that escapes much of what it is.

Peres is famous for having said he wanted a “new Middle East”, one where Israel was fully and openly normalised, in the midst of a wider union, perhaps similar to the European Union, where Israel played the role of Germany.

He published a book to that effect a few months after the Oslo Accords – but somehow persisted in the notion that this could take place without fully reconciling with Israel’s record in the region.

How is a “new Middle East” possible without addressing the historical injustices against the people of Palestine in the founding of Israel, without ending the occupation and siege over the West Bank and Gaza and without resolving the rights of Palestinian Israeli citizens? It seems unlikely public opinion in the region would accept any less.

More recently, Peres fully supported the military incursions into Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014 that caused so many deaths and so much suffering among Palestinians.

And if we go further back in history, Peres collaborated with apartheid South Africa, and Rwanda during the time of the genocide.

No one should dance on the grave of the dead. And Peres was certainly far less of a hawk than others in Israel’s political establishment. But designating him as a dove says far more about the world’s own selective memories, and what it considers to be a “dove”, than it does about Shimon Peres.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-­resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM


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