Israel's Peres wanted peace, but he was no Mandela
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Over the past week, Palestinians have watched as world leaders heaped praise and affection on the late Israeli president and prime minister, Shimon Peres, eulogizing him as a visionary politician dedicated to peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors. President Obama even compared him to Nelson Mandela.

But Peres was no Mandela, and comparisons between the two are not only offensive, but a gross distortion of the historical record. 

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Largely ignored amidst the tributes are the voices of Palestinians and others negatively impacted by Peres during his long career in Israeli politics. While many remember Peres the Nobel Peace Prize winner, awarded for his part in the signing of the Oslo Accords during the 1990s, Palestinians remember a man whose words about peace were not matched by his actions. 

In the early 1990s, at the age of 70, Peres helped start the Oslo process as foreign minister under Yitzhak Rabin. His more than 40 year career that predates this period was not one of a “dove,” for Peres was involved in the removal of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, including my family, during Israel’s establishment in 1948.  

Peres began Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program — which continues to have negative ramifications throughout the region — and he is one of the fathers of Israel’s settlement enterprise, which violates international law and longstanding official US policy.

But while many see the signing of Oslo as a turning point in Peres’ career, in reality it was not. Rather than rolling back Israel’s occupation and its restrictions on Palestinians, Rabin, Peres, and their successors used the cover of negotiations to create facts on the ground intended to prevent the creation of a contiguous and genuinely sovereign Palestinian state.

Most notably, Israel massively increased the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian with the number of settlers now close to 650,000, making it all but impossible to evacuate them as part of the two-state solution.

I met Peres in 2005, during Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from Gaza. At the time, I was an advisor to PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Peres was foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. While frequently portrayed as a bold step for peace, the so-called Gaza “disengagement” was in fact designed to put the peace process in “formaldehyde,” in the words of a top Sharon advisor at the time, alleviating international pressure to restart negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state and allowing Israel to cement control over occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

As he did frequently over decades, Peres served as a fig leaf for Israel’s hardline, pro-settler policies under Sharon’s government, helping to perpetuate the claim that the Gaza withdrawal was a move towards peace. In fact, after withdrawing, Israel locked the gates behind it and threw away the key, maintaining its control over the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza from the outside, soon imposing an illegal siege and naval blockade amounting to collective punishment of the entire population. Peres’s role in covering up the real motives behind the disengagement and defending the siege and Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza is emblematic of his political career.

But acting as a fig leaf was not the worst of his offences; rather, it is his legacy that is far more harmful.  For if Peres could speak of peace while still supporting the growth of illegal settlements; if he could secretly build nuclear weapons without submitting to inspections from the international community; if he could support attacks on Gaza and even assert that Palestinians “self-victimize;” and if he could shell a UN compound and order the assassination of Palestinians, then so too could a “hawk” or indeed, the average Israeli.  

Also largely forgotten, including by President Obama, is the central role that Peres played in cementing Israel’s alliance with apartheid South Africa during the 1970s, when much of the world was attempting to isolate the racist white regime, even helping it develop nuclear weapons. This is his legacy — creating an environment of impunity for war crimes while using the language of “peace.”

Peres no doubt did truly desire peace. Everyone does. But the question is, for whom, on what terms, and what was he willing to do to achieve it? An honest look at his life tells us that Peres did little to work towards a real and just peace, and certainly was no dove or Mandela.

Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based political analyst and former advisor to PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators.


 

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