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Reviewed by:
  • Shimon Peres: The Biography
  • Michael Keren
Shimon Peres: The Biography, by Michael Bar-Zohar. New York: Random House, 2007. 554 pp. $29.95.

Throughout Shimon Peres's long political career, from his nomination in December 1953 as director general of Israel's defense ministry at the age of 30, through his service as Knesset member, government minister, and prime minister, to his election in June 2007 as Israel's president at the age of 83, the discrepancy between this statesman's great achievements and his image as untrustworthy keeps puzzling political observers. This biography, written by a long-time associate of Peres, provides a good illustration why. It consists of a lengthy account of Peres's deeds: the construction of Israel's military industries and nuclear reactor; the establishment of close relations with France and Germany in the fifties and sixties; the rescue of Israeli hostages from Entebbe in 1976; the fight against inflation in the 1980s; the Oslo accords of the 1990s, and others. At the same time, the biographer, just like his hero, seems as concerned with the spread of favorable images as with substance, which has been one of the main causes of Peres's loss of credibility.

From the beginning, when Peres's departure from Poland to Palestine as a child is described, one doubts whether grandpa's voice really trembled with emotion when he uttered to little Shimon: "Be a Jew, forever!" (p. 10). This [End Page 170] commandment is followed by an endnote attributing its source to Peres himself, and could of course be true, but it would have seemed more credible had it not been so serving of a life narrative presenting Peres as an enlightened figure with a sense of mission rather than as an effective public servant.

While not hiding many of Peres's flaws of character, culminating in his failure to act on information he received as prime minister about the murder of two Palestinian terrorists after their capture, this biography often lacks serious scholarship when it is needed. For instance, Israeli–French relations are described as founded almost exclusively on Peres's personal contacts, without much analysis of the interests at stake; the description of Peres's tenure as deputy defense minister could have been significantly enhanced by a deeper consideration of civil-military relations in Israel; and a whole body of scholarship on the Suez Crisis of 1956 is ignored, when Israel is said to have achieved in that crisis "a hundred percent of its goals" (p. 161).

A lengthy description is provided of the conflict between Peres and his labor party archrival Yitzhak Rabin, especially in the 1970s when he served as minister of defense in Rabin's government. This description, however, could also be enhanced by a more profound look into claims made by Rabin and others that Peres's actions in such matters as the Kadum affair (when in 1976 he finagled a political compromise allowing the first major West Bank settlement) were motivated by that conflict. Peres's role in the Entebbe operation when, as Minister of Defense, he planned the rescue at a time in which Prime Minister Rabin was still considering negotiations with the terrorists, is hinted to be an outgrowth of his greater vision, while the different approaches by the two men could easily be explained by the different responsibilities they were charged with.

Bar-Zohar, who has also written the biography of Israel's legendary founder David Ben-Gurion, reports of Peres's satisfaction over his biography's being written by Ben-Gurion's biographer. This, however, has not necessarily been to Peres's advantage. His life is interesting to follow not because it resembles Ben-Gurion's but because it does not. Peres's great achievements, including the Oslo accords, were the result of his technocratic approach to politics. He always excelled in his dealings with "industrialists, military officers, government aides, ministers, members of parliament, journalists" (p. 109), and understood that Israel's security and well-being depends on pragmatic policies and actions rather than on abstract visions. Neither he nor his biographer, however, have resisted the temptation to endow Peres with intellectual qualities (e.g., "a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 170-172
Launched on MUSE
2009-02-14
Open Access
No
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