Former US Middle East Negotiator: Shimon Peres Was the ‘Forrest Gump of Israeli Politics’
The late former Israeli President Shimon Peres was a “truly consequential” figure who played an “inextricable” role in the transformation of Israel from a fledgling new nation into a regional powerhouse over the past seven decades, a former US State Department Middle East negotiator who interacted with Peres told The Algemeiner on Thursday.
Peres, who died on Wednesday at the age of 93 and will be laid to rest on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Friday, was the “Forrest Gump of Israeli politics,” Aaron David Miller — currently a vice president at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington — said.
“He was there and saw it all,” Miller, who first met Peres in the late 1980s during a trip to Israel with then-Secretary of State George Shultz, said. “I think his real legacy is that even though he did not achieve the position he sought the most — being prime minister with an elected mandate — he managed to be linked to almost every major development in the history of the state and many of these developments were exceedingly positive.”
Reflecting on his conversations with Peres, whom he called “larger than life,” Miller recalled the statesman’s strong sense of wit.
“He once told me that throughout most of his career he was one of the most controversial men in Israel and then at the end one of the most beloved,” Miller said. “And then he added, with that smile on his face, ‘I’m not sure which role I liked the most.’”
Miller believes that the massive global outpouring of sympathy and nostalgia following Peres’ death “has a lot to do with the appreciation, whether people acknowledge it or not, of the leadership deficit in Israel, the Middle East and the whole world these days.”
Peres — who as a young man was as a protégé of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion — was widely considered to be the last of Israel’s founding fathers.
“I remember at a breakfast at [then-Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon’s farm in March 2002 during a futile effort in which I accompanied [special envoy for the United States to Israel and the Palestinian Authority] Anthony Zinni to broker a cease-fire [during the Second Intifada],” Miller said. “Peres, who was foreign minister at the time, was there. I listened to Peres and Sharon talk about the old days and despite the differences in their temperaments, political styles and views on just about everything, there was this extraordinary bond and rapport and mutual affection for one another as men who had seen just about everything in the history of their country.”
Peres is remembered around the world for the role he played — alongside then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — in forging the Oslo peace accords with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in the early 1990s.
Asked whether he thought the Oslo process would have succeeded in leading to a comprehensive peace agreement if Peres had defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 prime ministerial election, which took place half a year after Rabin was assassinated, Miller expressed skepticism.
“Rabin’s partner was Arafat,” Miller said. “With Rabin’s death, there was a fundamental crisis in confidence. And here is the deeper problem — the structural flaws that doomed Oslo would likely not have changed appreciably had Peres been elected. One of the reasons Rabin was able to do what he did was the perception of him as tough, hawkish, pragmatic and trustworthy. That was not Peres’ image in those days…But frankly, I worked closely on Oslo and I really think the structural flaws were determinative and the enterprise was based on a set of contradictions that would have been almost impossible to bridge no matter who the prime minister was.”
Miller last spoke with Peres three years ago around the time of his 90th birthday. “He was imaginative, intellectual, innovative, and incredibly young in spirit then,” Miller said. “He seemed literally indefatigable. Israel without Peres appeared to be something that was just not possible.”
Looking to the future and Peres’ legacy, Miller said, “Oslo lies broken and bloodied in the streets of Israel and Palestine. But if in fact it rights itself and we end up with a conflict-ending solution, Shimon Peres will emerge as a true visionary who understood that despite the difficulty in getting there, it was a critically important thing to do.”