Shimon Peres was in America this week hawking his new biography. Written by veteran Labor-friendly journalist Michael Bar-Zohar, who served as Peres’s campaign chairman during the 1981 Knesset elections, the book (imaginatively titled Shimon Peres: The Biography) strives to present its subject as a sadly misunderstood and underappreciated Israeli hero.
If slogging your way through 500 pages on the life of Shimon Peres is your idea of time well spent, then by all means go out and pick up a copy. But for the Monitor’s money, there’s no better way to get to know the mind of Israel’s serial political loser (a man who in 2000 couldn’t even beat a nonentity like Moshe Katsav for the ceremonial post of Israeli president) than by considering a handful of quotes from an older, much slimmer volume.
For the Future of Israel – essentially a series of interviews with the sympathetic journalist Robert Littell – was published in 1998 and still makes for morbidly fascinating – actually, quite frightening – reading.
Take, for example, Peres’s attitude toward the late French president François Mitterand. For the longest time Peres simply refused to believe the hard evidence that Mitterand, whom he considered an intimate friend, had ties to the anti-Semitic Vichy regime during World War II and in fact had been a close associate of the very official responsible for deporting tens of thousands of French Jews.
Asked by Littell about his relationship with Mitterand, Peres offered a long-winded apologia that sought to portray Mitterand as a philo-Semite who knew the Bible by heart.
“Maybe he did have some dark spots in his biography,” Peres finally conceded, “[but] that doesn’t change my judgment about him.”
Even more revealing – and dismaying, given the implications – is Peres’s fraternal feelings for Yasir Arafat.
“Arafat,” Peres gushed to Littell, “has been at ceremonies all over the world and he knows how to behave and he grasps a bit of French, and so on. I mean, he’s quite phenomenal from that point of view.”
And not only was Arafat something of a continental gentleman in Peres’s awestruck eyes – “he grasps a bit of French, and so on” – he was a man of faith as well.
“He considers himself as coming from the line of the Prophets. He is a very religious man,” said Peres admiringly of the man responsible for more dead Jews than anyone since Hitler and Stalin.
And get a load of the charming word games Peres liked to play with the PLO leader, as he described them to Littell:
“I call [Arafat] different names at different periods – it depends on the atmosphere of the meeting. He wanted to be called President. And I called him Chairman. And then we agreed that his name would be Ra’is, which in Arabic means both chairman and president. Ra’is is like the Hebrew rosh, which means head. There was a very nice ambiguity.”
A very nice ambiguity. The reader visualizes Peres at a wine tasting event, sniffing a glass of Bordeaux, pinky ever so delicately extended. And then reality intrudes. It’s not fermented grapes Peres is discussing, but his nauseatingly lighthearted attempts at coming up with a mutually agreeable title of respect for the world’s master terrorist.
But all one needs to know about how a bloody thug like Arafat could play a phony intellectual like Peres for such a fool for so long is revealed in this remarkable soliloquy Peres delivered to Littell:
[Arafat] doesn’t feel himself obligated by facts – he can create his own interpretations of facts. He is a master of the facts, not a slave to them…. I mean, when it comes to facts, he prefers to become a sort of Chagall – things can float around.
Doesn’t feel himself obligated by facts. A sort of Chagall. Things can float around. In other words, in addition to his history as a killer of Jews, he was, in Peres’s own telling, a completely untrustworthy man, one unencumbered by such mere inconveniences as facts. But nevertheless a man whom Peres and those who think like Peres were perfectly willing to gamble Israel’s future on.