As Shimon Peres wrote in his newly published posthumous memoir, “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel,” the milestones of his life were deeply “entwined with the birth and construction of Israel.” And there were many significant milestones, starting with secretly procuring weapons for Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 to winning the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1994.
Peres died in September 2016 at the age of 93 after a career in politics and diplomacy that spanned 70 years. Born in Poland, Peres and his family immigrated to Israel in 1934 when Shimon was 11 years old. Peres recalled being reunited with his father, who had been in Israel for two years. The elder Peres was tan and fit, already a Sabra in his young son’s eyes.
In Israel, Shimon Peres was a leader in the Zionist socialist youth movement, where he found his political footing. He was also a part of Israel’s early pioneering life as a founding member of Kibbutz Alumot, where he tended sheep in the Galilee and was often called to defend the kibbutz against Arab incursions. By the time he was in his early 20s, David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of modern Israel and the state’s first president, noticed Peres’ intelligence, creativity and charisma and brought him into his inner circle. “Ben-Gurion spotted my father at a very early stage in his life and became a mentor to him,” said Nehamya Peres.
Peres’ youngest son, Nehamya—or Chemi as he is known—is promoting his father’s book. In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Peres noted: “Ben-Gurion used to say that when Shimon knocked on the door, he knew three things would happen. The first is Shimon would never ask for anything for himself. The second was that he never heard him slandering anyone and that he only told the truth, and the third was that he always had an exciting creative idea to share.”
Peres further recalled that as Ben-Gurion’s protégée, the division of labor between the elder statesmen and his father was clear: “Ben-Gurion took care of what existed and Peres took care of what didn’t exist yet.” In the book, Peres delineates his roles in some of Israel’s key historical events. Chemi Peres pointed out that his father picked six notable episodes of his life “which began as dreams or greater causes that came with decisions and hard choices that he had to make.”
After Israel’s War of Independence, Peres and his wife, Sonia, moved to New York, where Peres studied at The New School. From his base in New York, Peres continued to buy weapons on the black market for the nascent Israel Defense Forces. Peres’ arms shopping sprees read like a cross between a thriller and a comedy of errors. When he went to meet dealers in Havana, he arrived at the designated meeting place at noon only to learn that they had meant midnight. In Cartagena, Colombia, he arrived in a small plane with its engine on fire to buy two decommissioned British ships for Israel’s fledgling navy.
By 1957, Peres was back in Israel “masterminding the Dimona project.” Chemi Peres noted that his father “founded Israel’s nuclear program. It was his project from A to Z. He developed it, executed it and raised the funding for it. It was one of the highlights of his career.” In the book, Peres recounts a jaw-clenching episode in which the ousted French prime minister authorized the sale of a nuclear reactor to Israel even though his government had collapsed the night before. In what Peres described as a “generous display of friendship,” Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury signed the letter with the previous day’s date.
Peres, who was then minister of defense, was also one of the masterminds of the 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda, in which pro-Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Paris-bound Air France flight. The mission was one that Chemi Peres said “exceeded any realistic capabilities. My father had a lot of courage and imagination to pull it off.” It was also an undertaking that played out Ben-Gurion’s bedrock belief that “in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
In preparation for the daring rescue of almost 300 hostages, Peres writes that he and his team studied maps of the airport in Uganda “the way fathers and grandfathers had studied the Talmud.” As prime minister, Rabin was leaning toward negotiating with the hijackers, but Peres insisted on a military solution, going as far as to interrupt a dinner party to enlist the support of Moshe Dayan. The mission was a success and one that boosted Rabin’s approval ratings. But as Chemi Peres noted: “At the end of the day the credit belongs to the State of Israel. My father was the initiator—the evangelist of taking the risk and pulling off an operation that was beyond imagination. Rabin should also get credit for having supported it and shared the responsibility with my father.”
His legacy, which Peres ultimately spent the last 40 years cultivating, was that of peacemaker. In the memoir, he writes: “I am perceived by many to be a man of great contradictions. … I have been known as one of Israel’s most vocal doves, as a man singularly focused on peace. But the first two decades of my career were spent not in pursuit of peace but in preparation for war.” Throughout “No Room for Small Dreams,” Peres succinctly lays out those contradictions. He recalls the peace achieved between Israel and Egypt, and then Israel and Jordan, as a harbinger of things to come for the Jewish state. Pursuing peace with the Palestinians was ultimately a dream unfulfilled in his lifetime. He was just a few feet away when Rabin, who had by then become a close ally for peace, was assassinated.
Chemi Peres observed that any project to which his father was committed was always dynamic, including, most notably, the Oslo Accords. Peres considers his father’s book, finished just weeks before his death, as a clarion call for the next generation. “Rather than strictly recording the past,” he said, “my father’s book serves to shape the future.”