When you work with a country’s founding prime minister at the very start of its statehood, and you’re still its iconic elder statesman seven decades later, you’re going to impact a lot of people’s lives. Directly and indirectly, Shimon Peres surely affected the lives of more Israelis than anybody else. And if we haven’t yet become the nation at peace that he strove for us to become, it surely wasn’t for the lack of his trying.
Looking back through clips today, I realize I must have interviewed Shimon Peres more than I’ve interviewed anybody else. Year after year when he was president; a few years ago onstage at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Jerusalem; at a world Jewish media summit here in 2014; at The Times of Israel’s Gala in New York last year in front of 1,200 people, and a few more times besides. And I only knew him in the latter stages of his extraordinary life.
The consistent theme in his conversations, in the presidential years and beyond, was that peace is attainable. He would argue, even in the darkest of periods, that Mahmoud Abbas is “absolutely” a partner for peace. He would implicitly criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others, for not doing enough to advance it. “If you’ve decided on a Palestinian state, then you have to make that decision happen,” he told me once, asking plaintively, “So what’s the alternative? That there be one state and the majority will determine its nature?”
US President Barack Obama was quick to hail Peres, on his passing, as a man who changed the course of history, and as “the essence of Israel itself.” The trust and affection were mutual. That was another of Peres’s firm beliefs in the last few years — that Israel could and should trust Obama, to ensure Israel’s security if and when it moved ahead with the Palestinians, and to prevent Iran from attaining the bomb.
Peres would argue, in that quiet, gentle, but relentless way of his, that the forces of technology, of aspiration, and of youth, are ultimately beneficial and ultimately irresistible
Peres’s critics, many of whom became more appreciative and respectful of him as the years passed, would say he was naive about Palestinian intentions, naive about Iran. When this was put to him, he would shake his head mildly, not unduly perturbed. And he would argue, in that quiet, gentle, but relentless way of his, that the forces of technology, of aspiration, and of youth are ultimately beneficial and ultimately irresistible. Irresistible even to regimes such as the ayatollahs’. “The present government in Iran doesn’t have a future,” he told me with complete conviction, back in 2013. “The problem of Iran is timing, not verdict. It’s a government that doesn’t have a message — not only for humanity, but for their own people.”
Two years later, at our gala, he elaborated: “Iran too will change. You cannot have the ayatollahs as the eternal government.” Pressure for reform from young Iranians would be among the factors to spell the demise of the regime, he predicted: “In 10-15 years, Iran will be out of water and thus out of ayatollahs, in my judgment.”
As the years passed, Peres’s pace mellowed a little, his speech patterns slowed. But his curiosity never dulled, nor did his passion for the new and the innovative. When Obama visited in 2013, it was Peres, then 89, who was the natural choice to guide the American president through an Israel Museum exhibition of groundbreaking Israeli technology. Three years earlier, I remember him speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, without notes, for more than an hour about nanotechnology. In a hotel restaurant on the evening before our gala, he was to be found deep in conversation with the young computer prodigy Kira Radinsky, who utilizes web knowledge and dynamics to predict future events.
Peres was the face of the Israel that the world wants to see: Warm and wise, a believer in the essential good of humanity. Indeed, he was the face of the Israel that we want to see — constantly questing for a safer, better, more tranquil future.
‘I do not suggest that Israel reduce its strength. I also don’t suggest that Israel reduce its desire for peace’
Not all of us, however, were able to share his confidence in what can be attained. To which Peres once patiently responded to me: “Doubt is not a policy. Doubts are a riddle. If you want to do crossword puzzles, go ahead. You need to take positions.”
It was, he granted, understandable and acceptable, as Israelis, for us to feel threatened. And thus, he urged, “Practically, prepare as best as you can for the worst, and prepare to change the situation for the better. I do not suggest that Israel reduce its strength. I also don’t suggest that Israel reduce its desire for peace.”
Shimon Peres touched many, many lives in his unique career. He certainly impacted mine. When I was considering setting up The Times of Israel, I asked his presidential office if he would meet with me, and he readily agreed. He urged me to somehow build the site in partnership with Palestinians, but sensing that I was not about to do that, was encouraging nonetheless. Peres’s voice was somewhere in my mind when, once the site was up and soaring, we decided to open an Arabic version of The Times of Israel — not, as I’m sure he would have most wanted, as a vehicle to advocate peace, but as a means of enabling the Arab world to better understand Israel via professional, fair-minded journalism, which I know he also respected.
Along with many millions, I’ll greatly miss Shimon Peres. I’d like to live in that better world that he believed, to his dying day, is out there to be attained, if only we have the vision and the will.