With the death this week of Israeli founding father Shimon Peres, there is likely to be a lot of talk, some of it abstract but much of it related to Israel, about peace. Which is, one supposes, as it should be. Among Peres’ greatest attributes was his ability to maintain his hope for an Israel at peace and to envision a pathway to it; often in spite of reality. Such visionaries not only impact, but also demonstrate the greatness of free societies. Even when they make mistakes.
But the peace talk about to wash over us will be the boilerplate kind; the easy kind. It will be the kind of pap that makes us feel good about ourselves without moving the ball down the field to actually achieving peace. In fact, such rhetoric about peace can be harmful. We can get stuck in it; wallow in it.
So when Pope Francis says Peres’ “legacy will truly be honored and the common good for which he so diligently labored will find new expressions, as humanity strives to advance on the path toward enduring peace,” I sigh. When John Kerry and a thousand other world leaders call Peres a “warrior for peace,” I roll my eyes.
When the eulogies are over and we begin speaking of Peres’ legacy in prose, it will be time for the people currently reenacting the opening scene of Evita to face some hard truths about Israeli-Palestinian peace:
First, there is no peace to be had right now. Peace requires two parties willing and able to make it. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority has shown no interest in working to change Palestinian culture to prepare it for peace or in making the kind of concessions necessary to obtain it. If they did make such changes and could arrive at a deal, they would still lack the ability to enforce it. And decades of public polling of Palestinians shows that the population simply isn’t ready to bury the hatchet.
Second, continuing to push for a peace that isn’t going to happen may make you feel good about yourself, but it forestalls the conditions that will actually bring the conflict to an end. Our long-term strategic goal should be fostering peace prospect-enhancing changes in Palestinian society. Why Palestinian society? Because where’s their Shimon Peres?
Third, building from the previous point, arm-twisting retreat from the side that is both a liberal democracy and a producer of leaders like Shimon Peres is monumentally unfair, strategically inept, and likely to produce unpleasant results. Condemning Israeli housing in the West Bank, as the current administration and European countries prefer, is counterproductive. Israel has a demonstrated history of willingness to uproot Jewish communities and forfeit territory. Where is the concomitant Palestinian example of positive cultural change? Of negotiated concession?
Last, the Israeli electorate figured all of these things out about 15 years ago. Because, for them, the complexities at work here are local news. Listening to them — not the minority viewpoint you happen to agree with, but the public in general — is where every other free country should start when determining its policies on Israel.
Richard Haas, the normally sober president of the Council on Foreign Relations, reacted to Peres’ death by tweeting, “Shimon Peres great if tragic: never fully bonded w Israeli people who didn’t quite trust his peacemaking, lack of mil experience, erudition.” This is nonsense and deeply offensive both to Peres and to the Israeli public whose verdict on him was clear: they wanted him at the table and kept sending him there for every important national decision for seven decades. In fact, the Israeli people kept him there far longer than any other leader in their history. Even his political opponents understood his value and wanted him in the room when decisions were being made.
More than a bond between a politician and his people, the relationship between Peres and Israelis was aspirational. They wanted to believe as he did. He respected their reasonable fears.
We can and should admire leaders like Shimon Peres. Our civilization should aspire to raise up more people like him. We best honor him by first speaking honestly and then acting in the realistic service of peace.