The death of Shimon Peres last week has finally brought to an end the towering generation of the Middle East’s dramatis personae. Peres was the last of a generation that literally built Israel by hand, hard work and, importantly, intelligence.
Peres spent decades at the centre of Israeli political life. First elected to the Knesset in 1959, he occupied a series of posts in the following decades, including Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Minister of Defence, and Foreign Minister. He twice served as Prime Minister (1984-86, 1995-96). While he was Foreign Minister in 1994, Peres, along with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat for the Oslo Accords, aimed at securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
His popularity soared during his term as President of Israel from 2007 to 2014. Released from the constraints of partisan politics, he emerged as a revered symbol of national unity and a visionary spokesman for peace between Israel and its neighbours.
My first encounter with Peres was in 2000, when he visited India as Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation. I worked for a private television channel then, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Israeli embassy, I managed to get him into the channel’s studio for a live interview. While waiting to be called to the studio, and despite or because of the vast differences between us, he not only asked lots of questions about my life, but was even keen on listening to the answers.
It was clear even then that he had a very special love for India and for a long time saw a potential that probably most in India did not see. As he told the Indian External Affairs Minister in 2012, “For us India is first of all a culture. Then it is for us the greatest democracy on earth and then the unbelievable achievement of overcoming poverty without becoming poor in freedom.” He was fascinated by India’s model of pluralism and co-existence, often calling upon the world to learn from the Indian experience.
To many young people, especially those below a certain age, he has always been seen as a senior statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. What is not very known in the world outside of Israel was that Peres was the prime mover in establishing Israel as a nuclear, military and military industries powerhouse and almost complete self-reliance. He had seen very clearly what happened when the Jewish people were dependent on others for their security, and learned from that experience that Israel could not afford to do the same.
The thriving and very close relations between India and Israel were not always so. In the 1980s, the indifference in bilateral relations was broken by him when, as Prime Minister, he met the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the UN General Assembly in 1985. By the time India set up its first embassy in Tel Aviv in mid-1992, Peres was the Foreign Minister. In May 1993, he made his first visit to India.
The words of President Pranab Mukherjee, condoling his death, said it best: “We, in India, remember Mr Peres as a steadfast friend of our country, whose lasting contribution to the strengthening of the close bilateral partnership between India and Israel will be long remembered.”
Goodbye, friend of India. Shalom Chaver shel Hodu.
Arjun Hardas is the India Representative of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Asia Pacific Institute.