November 18, 2018

Shimon Peres’ peace train

It was 1984, he was campaigning for prime minister. I was a young journalist, recently arrived in Jerusalem from San Francisco. At Independence Park, I noticed a political rally going on, but I couldn’t get close enough to see the candidates. There was a row of bushes behind the speakers, so I ducked into them from behind, then crawled out toward the rally. When I emerged on my hands and knees, I was quite literally, with zero exaggeration, right between the planted legs of Shimon Peres. 

I retreated just enough, then stayed there, taking notes. 

Over the years, whenever I was around Peres, that’s what I did — take notes. I got close to him again once, at an event in Los Angeles, when he spoke about the possibility of a “New Middle East” that would foster cooperation between Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. He spoke of open borders and of a “peace train” that would travel along long-abandoned tracks laid by former colonizers from Egypt through Israel to Lebanon. It was spellbinding, beautiful. 

The Peres of the years I lived in Israel was of a different order than the Peres of my years in L.A. In the ’80s, in Israel, he was a joke — unelectable, a loser, a man whose big ideas and brilliant language fell as flat as a jahnoon among average Israelis. Everybody thought Peres was weak. For years, he wandered in that political wilderness. 

And let’s not kid ourselves, please. Many of the same American Jews and organizations that now praise Peres attacked him fiercely during the time he pushed with Yitzhak Rabin for the Oslo Accords. We love a dreamer, but God forbid he should realize those dreams. It turns out it was easier to appreciate a man who spoke of peace than to embrace that same man when he tried to make peace.

But Peres embodied, like his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli tension between peace and security, idealism and pragmatism. “He was a champion of the settlements,” former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said at a Wednesday breakfast meeting with Latino and Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, “but he became the champion of the peace process.”

Peres once told Oren that May 13, 1948 —  the day before Israel declared its independence — Peres was sitting at Ben-Gurion’s desk.

“He opened the top drawer,” Oren recounted, “and there was a report in there from the Israeli forces, the Haganah, saying that they have a million bullets.  A million bullets by their best estimates were enough for 10 days’ fighting. And he told me he remembered looking at that piece of paper and getting sick to his stomach, realizing they didn’t have enough bullets to fight this war.” 

The same man who fretted over bullets and peace trains launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, targeting Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, which led to the death of 102 civilians in the attack on a United Nations compound in Qfar Qana. 

The same man who talked of peace corridors was also the man most responsible for Israel’s arms industry. He organized its navy and its Defense Ministry, and he secured Israel as a nuclear power. Yes, the man who we rightly hail as a visionary peacemaker was almost singlehandedly responsible for introducing nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

Paradox? Hypocrite? Not to me. For Israel to flourish in a hostile region, it first needed to demonstrate to its neighbors it could not be uprooted. The nuclear weapons installation at Dimona pretty much ended the discussion. In the real world, you can’t win peace until you’ve won the war.

In his biography of Peres, Michael Bar-Zohar details what it took for Peres to establish Dimona, beginning in 1956. Everything Israelis and the American Jewish right disparaged Peres for — his courting of the international community, his default to diplomacy, his big, quixotic plans — is exactly what enabled him as a 33-year-old director general of the Defense Ministry — 33! — to secure French nuclear technology, West German uranium, heavy water from Norway, and uranium from Argentina and South Africa. 

Meanwhile, Peres had to fight against Israeli leaders who opposed the project and helped maintain the bald-faced lie to the United States and other nations that Israel was not engaged in the production of nuclear weapons. (If they were only to be used in defense, Ben-Gurion rationalized, then, technically, they weren’t “weapons.”) 

The result was an Israel whose enemies slowly came to see as undefeatable  — thus paving the way for peace.  (“There are two things you must never do in front of a camera,” Peres once told Oren, “make love and make Middle East peace.”) To say Peres was a man of peace doesn’t quite give due credit to the way he saw the world, or the way the world is. 

There are those even now who despise him, seeing him as a peacemaking poseur even as he birthed a nuclear Israel and wreaked havoc on Qfar Qana. But Peres knew that peace could only be made through strength, and the exercise of strength inevitably brought tragedy.

And there are those even now who despise him for the compromise he supported, in Oslo and as president. But Peres knew that all the security he brought to Israel through weapons and war would be squandered if it weren’t spent to make peace.

If Shimon Peres was a dreamer, he was the world’s most practical one. To this day, every time I visit Israel and board the train in Jerusalem, I can’t help but imagine taking it all the way to Beirut. If we follow Peres’ example, one day, we’ll all climb aboard. 


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.