The last of the founding fathers of Israel who was also its ninth president is dead. Just looking at the array of dignitaries attending the funeral of this nonagenarian laureate who held no public office when he passed away is telling not only of his international stature (which at times largely exceeded his popularity at home), but also of the thirst of the world to attach itself to a story of hope and optimism in relation to the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to have President Mahmoud Abbas attend the funeral is testimony enough of the need to show a positive message despite the meltdown not only of Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty and statehood but also of a whole region going up in flames of different hues.
So who was Shimon Peres for me? He was a man who could recite the prophets of the Old Testament just as he could be at ease with French literature or Chinese philosophy.
As such, he was perhaps the counterculture of Miri Regev, minister of culture in the Netanyahu cabinet, known for her directness and populism.
But more critically, was he the “eternal loser”, who never won public office in his own right as some pundits claimed, the “eternal romantic” in a cynical age as others countered too or perhaps the “eternal schemer” who was never short of a political sleight of hand?
Was he a wolf disguised as a lamb who thrived on chicanery, or a lamb surrounded by wolves who simply exuded an unquenchable optimism that fought against gloom?
Whether through his work or statements, was his lodestar that Israel should secure peace before it can enjoy security really credible? Or was he wrong, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims, when he refuses “peace” so long as there is in his opinion no “security”?
Shimon Peres, alongside his lieutenants such as Yossi Beilin and Uri Savir, argued that peace is an Israeli need and not a favour to Arabs or Palestinians.
More ambitiously, Peres advocated publicly for a great journey towards a world built ostensibly on logic and intellect and not on land.
These are words that go against the grain of two robust nationalisms – Palestinian and Israeli – and undermines the very essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is focused on the illegal occupation by one party – Israel – of disjointed territories that should in principle already constitute a future state of Palestine. After all, how can logic and intellect conquer land?
Over the past few days, I have read many obituaries for the late Shimon Peres. Some were all sweetness and light in a way that reminded me of the Armenian popular adage that translates roughly as “go die and I’ll love you forever”.
Others, including those from Arab and even some Israeli commentators or social media activists, have reviled the legacy of this man by reminding us – and rightly so – that he was responsible for Operation Grapes of Wrath and the Qana massacre in Lebanon in 1996 and that he supported the Separation Wall as much as he did bypass roads and settlements well before the dawn of the Oslo years.
Following my years in second-track negotiations, I retain two vignettes of Shimon Peres.
The first is the signature of the Declaration of Principles on the south-side of the White House lawn in Washington DC in September 1993 when he nudged the late Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with his arch-nemesis Yasser Arafat.
The other more recent photo is when he had assumed his grandfatherly phase and was being hosted alongside Mahmoud Abbas by Pope Francis in the gardens of the Vatican in June 2014 to plant trees of peace together.
As someone who has laboured in favour of justice and statehood for Palestinians, and as one who believes implicitly that the political shenanigans of successive Israeli governments have only made the two-state solution an even more remote target, I would sum up Shimon Peres as an Israeli Zionist whose character elicited two seeming contradictions.
On the one hand, he battled for a strong, secure and nuclear Israel. On the other, he wanted peace with the Palestinians and the larger Arab neighbourhood that was indeed forward-looking but was still skewed very patently in favour of Israel.
Are those paradoxes a case of ne’er the twain shall meet or are they an insight into Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions?
In a region replete with contradictory leaders, I would simply add that Shimon Peres is someone who tried to go a few steps farther than some of his Israeli contemporaries in righting a historical wrong suffered by Palestinians.
But is his demise the end of an era? I am not too sure since I have great difficulty in defining an era that had many permutations but ultimately remained incomplete and – possibly just like the man himself – unfulfilled.