Israel approaches its 50th anniversary next year as one of the most divided countries in the world. Geoffrey Wheatcroft talks to ex-prime minister Shimon Peres, revisits the history of Zionism, and considers which is the more divisive: proportional representation or the bombs of Hamasby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
On a ravishingly clear September morning I was about to set off to interview the previous Israeli prime minister, when I decided on a whim to go to church. The Anglican cathedral was just down the Nablus road, and in this beautiful, troubled country-so much beset at present by what Shelley called “bloody faith, the foulest birth of time”-it seemed an apt sentimental gesture to support the poor old C of E, which at any rate hasn’t killed anyone for a long time.
Having reached the cathedral just before the advertised service at 8am, I sat down. Nothing happened. There were a couple of other people in the pews, but no clergyperson appeared. After 20 minutes I left, disgruntled and puzzled, drove to Tel Aviv and managed to turn up punctually for the 11am appointment. But there was no one at Shimon Peres’s office either, and I wondered whether I had finally lost my senses. Then someone arrived to explain that the clocks had gone back that morning, and it was now 10am. So I read the papers and drank coffee for an hour, grateful that it wasn’t spring with the clocks going forward to noon. I would not inflict this Pooterish anecdote on the reader but for its significance, which I discovered later.
Shimon Peres is now 74 and at the end of a long, remarkable and controversial career, which in its own ways has epitomised the grandeurs et mis?res of Israeli history and the tensions of Israeli politics. The Israeli Labour party has always been fractious, as Peres knows better than almost anyone. But Israel itself, as he also knows in the autumn days of his public life, is today a bitterly divided country.
Born in 1923 in a shtetl-a Jewish township-in White Russia, Shimon Peres was a young boy when he went to Palestine with his family. He served in the Haganah-the Zionist force which became the nucleus of the Israeli army-and became David Ben-Gurion’s prot?g?, one of the old man’s favourite sons along with Moshe Dayan. By 1956, Dayan had become chief of staff and Peres was a senior official in the defence ministry. They played important parts in the Suez escapade, a bizarre intrigue of which Peres gives a just-about-plausible account in his memoirs.
A few years later Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, civil servant and army general, bumped into each other with a loud…