When major figures die, the remembrances begin to pour in. The narratives created about those who have gone are supposed to tell us a lot about them. But what we choose to remember and how we choose to remember tell us great deal about us as well.
In the case of Nelson Mandela, the mainstream American remembrance narrative was that of Mandela the nonviolent dealmaker—a portrait that brushed aside Mandela the freedom fighter who reserved the right to use violence against oppressors supported by the United States and Britain. In the case of Muhammad Ali, the remembrance narrative leaned toward that of the aging Olympic flag-bearer, silenced by Parkinson’s, who was a symbol of tolerance—not the fiery, vocal champion of oppressed African Americans who denounced racism and American imperialism and sacrificed the peak of his career by refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. We remember, in these figures, that which is easy for us, and we forget that which makes us uncomfortable.
With the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a similar dynamic is at play. The remembrances focus on the Peres of the Oslo Accords, the Nobel Laureate who battled for an agreement despite the political costs in Israel. But by the time Peres, who died this week at 93, put his signature on the Accords on the White House Lawn, he was 70 years old. The most significant parts of his biography, those in which he had the biggest impact on the world around him, are the parts most remembrances have chosen to deemphasize.
Shimon Peres was a Forrest Gump–like figure in Israeli history. At almost every critical stage, he was involved in important policy decisions, and his actions had a long-lasting impact on the course of the state. During the war in 1948, even at a young age, he played an important role in procuring the arms Israel would use in the process of depopulating much of the native population of Palestine. In 1956, he worked with Britain and France to launch a war on Egypt in defense of Europe’s dying colonial ambitions. Through his relationship with Paris, Peres was able to gain French support for the development of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program. That alone is likely the most significant achievement on his résumé. But since it was done behind Washington’s back, it hasn’t figured prominently in American remembrances.
By the 1970s, as defense minister, Peres had morphed from weapons procurer to weapons provider, helping to supply South Africa’s apartheid regime with not only conventional weapons but secretly agreeing to sell it nuclear weapons—at the very same time the world was moving in the direction of an international arms boycott against Pretoria. During this period, Peres also oversaw the establishment of illegal settlements in the West Bank, settlements that would later be major geographic and political obstacles to the two-state solution he later claimed he wanted to see. In those years, he was a supporter of the settlement enterprise and called for permanent Israeli control of the West Bank.