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The Last Lion of Israel

January 15, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Israel

The Last Lion of Israel

After Sharon's death, Shimon Peres is the last of the great men of 1948.

Even as Israeli president Shimon Peres eulogized former prime minister Ariel Sharon recently as a man who defended Israel 'like a lion,' there’s reason to believe that the curtain hasn’t fallen completely on Israel’s 1948 generation.

Many commentators are calling Sharon, who died Saturday after eight years in a coma, the last of Israel's founding fathers , with others openly wondering if Sharon was the last Israeli leader with the ability to bring about a lasting peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

Sharon was an exemplar of the generation of Israeli leadership forged during the crucible of the 1948 War of Independence, and he came of age during the struggle for Israel's existence as a 19-year-old fighter in the Haganah paramilitary unit that transformed into the Israeli Defense Forces. He joins a pantheon of Israeli leaders who began their careers in war and ended them wrestling with questions of peace: Menachem Begin in the 1970s, Yitzhak Shamir in the 1980s and 1990s, and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

But Peres, himself a former prime minister, is also part of that group, and it would be overhasty to omit his future potential. At age 90, Peres has already outlived Sharon by five years, and he has indicated that when he steps down in July after seven years as Israel's president, he could take one last shot at the goal that's eluded him over decades of public service: a Palestinian peace deal.

He'll do so not as a stalwart of the Israeli left or as the longtime nemesis of current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 26 years his junior, but as the last lion of the ’48ers—a statesman whose mentor was Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and who found common cause with rivals, including Shamir, Rabin and Sharon, in the hopes of achieving a more secure future for Israel.

Like Sharon, Peres began his political career as a relatively hawkish figure and would be a supporter of the settler movement. But Peres and Sharon spent much of their political careers on different sides of the ideological divide—Peres as a leader of the center-left Labor Party, Sharon as a stalwart of the center-right Likud. Peres became most well known for his role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo accords, for which he, Rabin, and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Sharon, Begin's defense minister in the early 1980s, became known as the 'bulldozer' of Israeli politics, courting controversy every step of the way.

But when Sharon, as prime minister in 2005, withdrew Israeli settlers and IDF troops from the Gaza Strip, Peres supported the decision, even while Sharon's critics on the right stridently opposed it. When Sharon left Likud to form Kadima, a new, centrist political party to contest the 2006 elections, Peres delivered Sharon a key endorsement when he, too, left his party to join Kadima. After Sharon's coma, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert led Kadima to an election victory in the vote later that year, and Peres would become deputy vice prime minister until his election in 2007 as Israel's president.

Three years into his term as a largely ceremonial head of state, Peres found himself serving alongside his old rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who only very narrowly ended Peres's chance for a full term as prime minister in the 1996 election, which followed only seven months after Rabin's tragic assassination. The Peres-Netanyahu relationship remains predictably frosty, though Peres has been more circumspect than Ezer Weizman , Israel's president during Netanyahu's first prime ministerial term. While Peres has clashed publicly with Netanyahu only rarely, he has repeatedly warned Netanyahu against straying too far from the US preference for a diplomatic solution over Iran's nuclear energy program.

Israeli presidents are currently limited to a single seven-year term, Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition controls the Knesset, and Peres indicated late last year that he will respect the one-term limit, so there’s no chance that Peres will stay on beyond July. (The early frontrunner is Likud's Reuven Rivlin, a former speaker of the Knesset, and the runner-up to Peres in 2007, though Netanyahu has yet to indicate a preference.)

That means that Peres will be freed from the restraints of Israel's top public office in just six months – and at a time when the opposition to Netanyahu is at its weakest. Most of Netanyahu’s strongest opponents have been co-opted into government, including the centrist Yesh Atid founder Yair Lapid (currently finance minister), former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni (currently justice minister and top negotiator with the Palestinians) and the nationalist Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett (currently economy minister). Moreover, polls show that Labor, Israel’s largest opposition party, which recently dumped its leader Shelly Yachimovich in favor of Isaac Herzog, could not effectively defeat the Likud Beitenu bloc of Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

So there's a space in Israeli politics for a galvanizing figure to build an effective anti-Netanyahu coalition with the single goal of achieving a deal with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. There are already rumblings that Peres will start a new political party this summer, with the reported support of Mossad (foreign intelligence) chief Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, the former head of Shin Bet (Israel's security agency). In many ways, if he were to do so, Peres would be picking up in 2014 where Sharon left off in 2006.

 

Even if Peres doesn't go so far as to create a new party, he'll be free to criticize Netanyahu more openly and to push with more insistence for negotiated political settlements both with Iran and the Palestinians. Although he has the power to become a huge headache for the current government, Netanyahu might find that it's more useful to keep Peres at closer proximity by perhaps deploying Peres on delicate missions abroad. It’s not hard to imagine the post-presidential Peres working behind the scenes to influence any 'P5 + 1' deal over Iran's nuclear program or lending his gravitas to Livni and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in laying the groundwork for a long-term Palestinian peace deal.

Either way, Sharon's death highlights that there could well be one final act for the 1948 generation—and Peres, who has been party to just about every important policy decision since Israeli independence, is well-suited for the task.

Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and editor of the foreign policy blog Suffragio.org.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ World Economic Forum . CC BY-SA 2.0.