Veteran Israeli Statesman Shimon Peres Dies At 93
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Israel holds such an outsized place in the imagination that it's easy to forget a few basic facts. It's a small country with a short modern history that's been guided by relatively few leaders. From the very beginning, the leaders of that enterprise included Shimon Peres. He was president for Israel's creation in 1948, and he was active in its politics for nearly all the years until his death this week at age 93. Those who know him include former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who's on the line. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.
DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.
INSKEEP: What was Shimon Peres' place in Israeli politics?
ROSS: Well, he's truly an iconic figure because he's from the founding generation. As a man in his 20s, he actually built the Israeli Defense Ministry. He was a close aide of David Ben-Gurion. He is someone who sweeps the entire history of Israel. And he's someone who, in some ways, was involved with almost every aspect of its development, from fighting for its existence to also then trying to negotiate peace. So he's - he's really a part of everything that defines Israel...
INSKEEP: You mentioned...
ROSS: ...Including cutting edge.
INSKEEP: You mentioned close aide to David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel. I want to follow up on something you said. He's the guy who built the defense ministry, built up Israel's defense capability, but then pushed for peace with Israel's neighbors. How do those two things fit together?
ROSS: Well, he evolved. He is someone who, I think, early on, had the Ben-Gurion view that Israel had to establish itself. It had to prove that it was going to be there, that it was a fact that no one could change. And once he became convinced that that was the reality, then, in fact, he began to focus more on, all right, now how do we translate our existence into a full flowering of who we are?
And how do we manifest and become everything we can be? And peace becomes part of the answer to that, so he becomes very much a visionary. He's a visionary from the beginning of the state in terms of establishing its reality in the midst of a region where its existence is rejected.
Later, when he has the kind of confidence that Israel is there to stay and that Israel's neighbors understand they can't alter that fact, then he tries to transform that into a new reality of peace.
INSKEEP: Did he get much credit for seeking peace?
ROSS: Well, I think he got a great deal of credit internationally and even within the region. I think, within Israel itself, he's - you know, there's a kind of mixed view of him. Many people, I think, see him within the public as being too much of a dreamer as it - as it comes to peace.
But if you look at the reaction to his death in Israel today, it's quite striking that, across the board, from left to right, there's a genuine outpouring of affection for him and also a recognition of the outsized role he played in the existence, founding of the state and its evolution.
INSKEEP: I want to read you a quote from a Palestinian politician who's heard elsewhere in today's program, interviewed by our colleague, Emily Harris, who was critical of Shimon Peres, even though he wanted peace with the Palestinians. The official said, quote, "he is like makeup on an ugly face. He beautifies the face - the crimes of Israel." Was he sincere in wanting an adequate peace with Israel's neighbors?
ROSS: He was, for sure. Look, I - I have known him for 30 years. I worked very closely with him throughout the Oslo process and afterwards. There was a deep conviction in his mind that the key to Israel's future, the key to the region's future was a peace.
This was not for him. This was not just about Israel. As deeply as he believed in everything that Zionism was supposed to be, including that Israel should be a light unto the nations, he also believed that this was a region that couldn't realize any kind of promise without peace.
There's a genuine depth to his conviction. Those who can't summon, I think, the recognition to understand that are probably too consumed by their own sense of grievance to be able to see beyond anything else.
INSKEEP: Did he have a sense of humor?
ROSS: Yes, he did. I mean, he - look, he was - he was full of life in every respect. This was a guy who loved a fine glass of wine. This was a guy who, I think, constantly was thinking about the future. My very last meeting with him - a private lunch - he was talking about the transformation of the brain and what it opened up for the future for everybody.
ROSS: That's who he was.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much. Always a pleasure talking with you.
ROSS: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Dennis Ross is a longtime U.S. diplomat and wrote a book on U.S.-Israel relations called "Doomed To Succeed." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.