Shimon Peres, the former president and prime minister of Israel, has died at the age of 93. “He served a very important function,” observed Clyde Haberman, former Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, “as, in effect, the leader of the peace faction within the Israeli government.” He was also, in the course of his long career, a leading proponent of the aggressive expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank (before coming to regret them), and, as Ali Gharib wrote in The Nation in 2014, a widely respected “elder statesman, often working to smooth the rough edges of Israel’s notoriously brash diplomacy.” In that sense he served an important function, indeed: as a perpetual invitation to what we now know was the false hope that sufficient support existed in Israeli society for the sacrifices necessary to make peace.
It was this eternal recurrence of Peres-based optimism that the pugilistic Israeli writer Amos Kenan sought to put an end to with “The Zionist Dream Becomes a Nightmare,” an article published in The Nation in October of 1982. As swooning tributes to Peres, the last surviving of Israel’s founding fathers, pour in from around the world, Kenan’s essay is a valuable tonic.
* * *
The Russians once invented a translating machine. To test it they inserted the English phrase, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The result, in Russian, came out, “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten.”
Shimon Peres is this kind of distorted reproduction, just as his Labor Party is a distorted reproduction.
Shimon Peres is an apparatchik—of an apparat that does not function anymore because its motor is dead. The motor was once fueled by the original spirit of Zionism, in its socialist version, a dream of two generations of humble prophets and naive visionaries: Zionism not just as another national liberation movement but as an experience in humanity, not only to create a new Jew in a new homeland but to create a new specimen of humankind. That dream has been turned into a nightmare by the experience of statehood and the needs of Realpolitik, and it is the Israeli Labor Party that is responsible. It is the Labor Party that is to blame for the face that Israel is now wearing, the face of Menachem Begin and Arid Sharon, of military oppression and moral decline. Menachem Begin was not elected to power; he fell into it, sucked into the vacuum created by the Labor Party and its chief architect, David Ben-Gurion.
* * *
Ben-Gurion, a strong and charismatic person, was the only statesman of his generation who did not comprehend the new map of the world after 1945, who did not foresee or understand the breakup of old empires, the end of colonialism, the rise of new nations, the emergence of the Third World. Until 1956, when France and Britain withdrew from the Suez and from the Middle East forever, he still believed that these were powers in the world, powers to rely on.
In the mid-1940s, illuminated by the flame of the Holocaust, a war raged in Palestine between the Jews and the British Empire, the former led by the left-wing fighting force of the Palmach and the smaller nonleftist groups of the Irgun and the Stern. In 1948, Ben-Gurion had them liquidate one another and disappear from political life so that their anti-imperialism would not affect the course of the newly born state of Israel. Ben-Gurion still did not believe that imperialism was dead.