NEW YORK CITY - I spent this morning listening to Shimon Peres, the foreign minister of Israel, as he addressed a Jewish group. Two aspects of the encounter left me slightly dazed. First, Peres has become the visionary of Israel; second, a substantial gulf is growing between Israeli leaders and Americans concerned about Israel.
The vision. Peres's main argument was that Israel's situation has been transformed, and much for the better. How so? Well according to Peres, four perennial conflicts have been solved. The Soviet collapse solved the East-West conflict. Economic growth in China and elsewhere solved the North-South conflict. The inauguration of President Mandela solved the black-white conflict. And the Declaration of Principles solved the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel for many years was a country under siege; now, strong and confident, it has much to offer the world. "Our main effort until now was to defend Zion; our main effort now is to make Zion a message." Israel is liberated by the resolution of those four conflicts. "We did what we had to do; now we are powerful and strong enough to do what we want to do." As an example and symbol of what his country has to offer, Peres points proudly to an Israeli experimental farm in China.
Beyond giving to the world, Peres has grand ambitions for Israel in its own neighborhood: "Our real aim is to change the Middle East." This change boils down to Israel having "to convince the Arabs" that economic growth is possible. If Israel could multiply its per-capita income many times in a decade, so too can the Arabs.
The premises. Trouble is, Peres premises these wonderful plans on pie-in-the-sky assumptions. The hardboiled functionary who began his career in politics in 1941 and who subsequently filled virtually every high position in the Israeli government (including eight different cabinet-level posts) has disappeared, replaced by a wooly academic theorist. Lest this judgment sound too harsh, here are some examples of Peres's thinking:
- Economic growth and the spread of information by television are the main mechanisms for the evolution of a more democratic and peaceful world.
- "You have to fight terrorism with wisdom," not just rifles.
- Saddam Husayn, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, and the ruling Iranian mullahs have no future: tyranny is too expensive for any but rich countries to afford, and even they don't wish to do so.
- "Whatever is important in life cannot be conquered by armies; nothing conquered by armies is important."
Reactions. My conversations suggest that Americans concerned about Israel find themselves torn by Peres's message, uplifted by its strength and optimism but wary of its validity. What about fundamentalist Islam? The proliferation of weapons? The dropping price of oil?
Nor does it help much when Peres, who indefatigably hammers away at his vision of Israel, airily dismisses critics as out of touch and out of date. "It's a changed world and like many of us, you are thinking in the past."
In my view, Peres confuses a final victory with a temporary respite. Yes, the old danger to Israel from soldiers, tanks, and aircraft has virtually disappeared. It is not gone for long, however: a new danger of missiles and unconventional weaponry is but some years away. Peres is mistaken if he assumes the current moratorium on force will last.
But he is right in wanting to take advantage of today's opportunity. This is indeed the moment for Israel to take risks in the hopes of closing some unfinished business. That means experimenting with the Arabs; and it should also mean two other changes: fixing up what is possibly the world's worst democratic political structure and weaning Israel from its dependence on American money.
June 1, 1996 update: See the collection of "Shimon Says" aphorisms, one exceeding the other in strangeness and eccentricity, introduced and compiled by Roger A. Gerber and Rael Jean Isaac in the current Middle East Quarterly, pp. 91-93.