Now that he has finished his consultations with the country's political parties and charged Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new coalition, Israel’s respected President, Shimon Peres, is once again very much in the news. In his speech inviting Netanyahu to form the next government, the President spoke forcefully about peace and even seemed to influence Bibi to mention peace, a word he never used in his election campaign. Peres has rightly earned respect for this from many quarters, but now, as the coalition is being formed, it might be a good time to examine one aspect of Israel’s political culture: the lack of respect for the task of a parliamentary opposition. Peres is at least partly to blame for this, as he almost always preferred to join various administrations—even as a junior partner—rather than lead the opposition, ofen citing “our grave situation” and “national responsibility.”
Now is surely a better time to criticize Peres than in June, when the world (maybe even including President Barack Obama) will be coming here to celebrate his 90th birthday. Then, surely, everyone will be paying deserved tribute to the wisdom of this elder statesman and prophet of peace, and it would be a shame to spoil the party. So let’s clear the air right now, well before the festivities.
Before we get to the matter of coalition politics, which is very much on our minds right now as Netanyahu struggles to put together a government, let us consider the other negative part of the Peres legacy: his stint as Defense Minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from 1974 to 1977. Today Peres is widely respected as the architect of the Oslo Accord of 1993, achieved while he was Foreign Minister. It was the first political move toward a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Peres deserves huge credit for securing the agreement. However, two decades earlier, as Defense Minister, he supported the Jewish settlement project in the newly-conquered Palestinian territories, both overtly and covertly.
Not for nothing did Rabin label Peres in his memoirs as “an indefatigable intriguer.” In 1975, while Rabin was doing his utmost to prevent the settlement of Elon Moreh, near Nablus, Peres continuously sabotaged his efforts. After no less than eight settlement attempts, which were ruled illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court, a “compromise” was reached, and Elon Moreh was established five kilometers to the east of the original site. Moreover, during the furor over Elon Moreh, Defense Minister Peres quietly facilitated the creation of Ofra, near Ramallah. These two settlements, which have become flagships of the settlement movement, were the start of Jewish colonization in Samaria, the northern part of the West Bank.
The previous year, as a young reporter, I interviewed Peres, after he and his political ally Moshe Dayan had refused “on principle” to join the government of Golda Meir. “If a single child can learn that politics is not just intrigues,” Peres told me, “I will be satisfied that we have done our bit.” Just one week later, when he and Dayan had reversed their position for no discernable reason, and were seated snugly around the cabinet table, I asked Peres what he had to say to the “single child.” His aides sniggered, but Peres didn’t bat an eyelid: “Just what my mentor, David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister) told me: when the security of Israel is laid on one side of the scales, and everything else on the other side, security tips the balance.”
Peres subsequently used that self-same argument to join every government that would have him. The late Menachem Begin lost nine elections before finally becoming Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977. He served as a pugnacious and dedicated leader of the opposition. Peres almost never headed the opposition, always preferring a ministerial appointment, once even designing a grotesque system of “rotation” with Yitzhak Shamir, so that he could be in the government.
He proposed the ideal of “national unity,” and greatly devalued the democratic concept of parliamentary opposition. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ruined her reputation when she refused to join Netanyahu in his last government. While it is quite true that Livni was an ineffective opposition leader, it is the very fact of her refusal to join the administration and “influence it from within” that has provoked most of the criticism by Israeli political commentators.
Similar criticism is currently being leveled at Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich for stating clearly that she would not join Netanyahu’s next government, but would serve as leader of the opposition. There are certainly many reasons to criticize Yachimovich, but not her eminently democratic decision to lead the parliamentary opposition. Very few of our political commentators have ever expressed respect or even understanding for the concept of opposition. The most popular political idea in Israel today is national unity—better still, a National Unity Government: “We should all rally round the flag and support our government in these critical times.” This position, widely espoused, echoes what Peres has said repeatedly over the years.
So, although the Peres vision of peace is a positive legacy, he has also taught us less helpful lessons. The settlements are a supremely negative inheritance, but I would argue that the anti-democratic rejection of the concept of a parliamentary opposition is an even more harmful bequest handed down to us by President Shimon Peres.