For Palestinians Shimon Peres was a hawk disguised as a dove

As the last surviving founding father of the Jewish state, he was revered in Israel but in the Arab world and particularly for Palestinians, Peres was a deeply controversial figure.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat with Shimon Peres during a forum in Majorca on the Middle East crisis, November 3, 2001. The death of Shimon Peres has been with silence from Arab leaders.  REUTERS/Dani Cardona/Files
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat with Shimon Peres during a forum in Majorca on the Middle East crisis, November 3, 2001. The death of Shimon Peres has been with silence from Arab leaders. REUTERS/Dani Cardona/Files

JERUSALEM // The death of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, was greeted with a stony silence from Arab leaders on Wednesday amid the outpouring of tributes from western politicians.

Peres, who died early on Wednesday aged 93, won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.

As the last surviving founding father of the Jewish state, he was revered in Israel and praised as a statesman. But in the Arab world and particularly for Palestinians, Peres was a deeply controversial figure.

His role in a now defunct peace process has been called into question, but he is most reviled for his hawkish early years, when he was a leading military figure in the formation of the Israeli state on Palestinian land.

Peres was key to the wars that followed against Arab countries and spearheaded the development of Israel’s secret nuclear programme, cementing the state’s military dominance in the region. In 1996, as prime minister, he oversaw a war in Lebanon in which more than 100 civilians were killed in an Israeli artillery strike on the village of Qana.

Perhaps most unforgivable for Palestinians and detrimental to the peace process, was that he allowed settlement construction to continue on illegally occupied Palestinain land during his years in leadership positions.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas hailed Peres as a “brave” partner for peace and sent his family condolences.

But his comments seemed out of step with other Palestinian politicians and ordinary people. Even those who credited him with negotiating with the PLO, said he failed to leave behind a peace legacy.

“He wasn’t serious about Palestinian statehood,” said Abdallah Abdallah, chairman of the politics committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a supporter of Mr Abbas. “He didn’t work to implement the courageous step he took of negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when he became prime minister, he didn’t contribute one iota to peace at all. We only remember him as a partner in the foundation of Israel which was a catastrophe for the Palestinians.”

Some Palestinian leaders, conscious of the international tributes to Peres, were cautious in their criticisms. Veteran Palestinian politician Qais AbdulKareem declined to answer when asked whether Peres had deserved his Nobel prize. But he said Peres had not been serious in supporting Palestinian statehood.

“If he was he could have included this in the Oslo agreement. But he and Rabin were not serious or explicit about Palestinian independence and insisted on an interim period of five years in which the Palestinians have limited self government and to leave future negotiations open to all alternatives.”

On the streets of Ramallah, opinions were far more severe.

Hossam Qiblaoui, a 52-year-old trader, labelled Peres “a criminal, a butcher” , while Tamer Daraghmeh, 47, accused Peres of being complicit in “many massacres. He made many widows and orphaned children.”

In Israel, Peres was one of the country’s most admired leaders.

He suffered a stroke on September 13 and had remained in hospital since then.

His son, Chemi, announced his death outside the hospital yesterday morning. “Our father’s legacy has always been to look to tomorrow,” he said.

US president Barck Obama described Peres as a man who represented “the essence of Israel itself”.

In a seven-decade political career, Peres filled nearly every position in Israeli public life.

Born on August 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his family aged 11.

As a young man, Peres joined the Haganah, a militia that would later form the basis of the Israeli Defence Forces and that was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages in 1947-49.

Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide and protege to Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

Peres led the defence ministry in his 20s and spearheaded the development of Israel’s secret nuclear programme, which remains outside of international supervision.

Peres held every major cabinet post – including defence, finance and foreign affairs – and served three brief stints as prime minister.

Yet, for much of his political career he struggled to match his international prestige with success in Israeli politics, where he was branded by many as both a utopian dreamer and political schemer. He suffered a string of electoral defeats: competing in five general elections seeking the prime minister’s spot, he lost four and tied one.

He finally secured public adoration when he was chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as Israel’s ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.

In Israel, Peres was celebrated by doves and vilified by hawks for advocating Israeli compromises for peace even before he negotiated the first interim accord with the Palestinians in 1993 that set into motion a partition plan that gave them limited self-rule. That was followed by a peace accord with Jordan.

But after a fateful six-month period in 1995-1996 that included prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres’ own election loss to the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, the prospects for peace began to evaporate.

Relegated to the political wilderness, he created his non-governmental Peres Centre for Peace.

* With reporting from Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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