‘We learned from the British’
Amjad Iraqi · Shimon Peres
Writing in the Guardian in 2011, Shimon Peres, then president of Israel, welcomed the uprisings that were spreading across the Middle East. Israel wanted to see ‘improvements in our neighbours’ lives’, he said, which was the reason it was helping Palestinians in the West Bank develop their own economy, institutions and security forces. ‘Israel was born under the British mandate,’ he went on.
We learned from the British what democracy means, and how it behaves in a time of danger, war and terror. We thank Britain for introducing freedom and respect of human rights both in normal and demanding circumstances. It was a great lesson and a necessary one for a country such as Israel, which has been attacked seven times in the 63 years of its existence without compromising democracy and without giving up our quest for peace.
Aside from his misleading portrayal of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians (including his omission of the blockaded Gaza Strip), Peres seemed oblivious to the darker implications of summoning Britain’s imperial past: that he, a leader of a settler-colonial state, was thanking a former colonial power for inspiring the methods Israel used to deal with the native Palestinians, while believing that those methods were benign.
When Peres died last month, many Palestinians resented the national and international outpouring of praise he received. They were especially angered when President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian Authority (PA) officials went to the funeral in Jerusalem; Abbas had to get permission from the Israeli army to enter the city. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List of Arab political parties in the Knesset, sent his condolences to Peres’s family but refused to go to the funeral. ‘This is a national day of mourning in which I have no place,’ he said. ‘Not in the narrative, not in the symbols that exclude us, not in the stories of Peres as a man who built up Israel’s defences.’
Israelis were shocked by these reactions. Since his presidency, Peres was revered in Israel as a peacemaker, a founding father, and a moral compass. He was an architect of the Oslo Accords and the peace treaty with Jordan, a Nobel laureate, and a sponsor of Jewish-Arab coexistence programmes through the Peres Centre for Peace. But he had not been a popular politician for much of his career: he was distrusted by his colleagues (‘a tireless schemer’, Yitzhak Rabin called him), and his brief stints as prime minister ended in political failure and lost elections.
Defenders of Peres’s legacy argue that he shed years of hawkish politics to become, in David Grossman’s words, a statesman who ‘symbolised the willingness for compromise with the Palestinians’.
The Palestinians, however, cannot forget the hawk so easily. For years, Peres helped to govern the military occupation and was a staunch supporter of the settlement enterprise. He encouraged British and French intervention in Suez in 1956 and established Israel’s nuclear weapons programme (the nuclear reactor in Dimona will now be named after him). Under the Oslo Accords, Israel tightened its control over Palestinian water and other natural resources, and the newly formed PA operated as an authoritarian police force at the behest of the Israeli army – all while the settlements continued to expand. As prime minister, Peres oversaw the 1996 shelling of a UN shelter in Qana in Lebanon, which killed more than a hundred refugees. And as president a decade later, he defended the Israeli army’s conduct during its repeated offensives on Gaza, regardless of the massive civilian casualties and destruction they caused. Peres may have believed he was pursing peace, but his notion of peace – even during his ‘dovish’ years – contradicted itself from the outset.
‘Every single empire’, Edward Said observed in Orientalism, has said ‘that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort … as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilisatrice.’ Israel is no different. None of the foreign leaders at Peres’s funeral raised the fact that millions of Palestinians live as occupied subjects, second-class citizens, and exiled refugees as a result of the policies he contributed to. None of them asked how he, like other Israeli leaders, could subscribe to liberal values while subjugating another society; support a new state while depleting its sovereignty; and promote equality while preserving ethnic privilege. Perhaps the answer can be found in Peres’s own words: ‘We learned from the British.’