Benny Morris’ interview of Shimon Peres in Tablet has to be one of the most interesting and refreshing reflections upon history that I have read in quite a while, yielding much insight into the personalities of Israel’s elder statesman and those with whom he interacted. With all his faults, he emerges far more heroic than before, and serves as a reminder of the days in which those who toiled to found the State – for all our ideological differences with them – were made of stronger stuff than the self-serving bureaucrats of the present.
Benny Morris is himself an intriguing character. As one of Israel’s New Historians, he was the darling of the left for challenging the mythic orthodoxies of Israel’s early days, particularly the War of Independence. He argued that in fact not all of Israel’s Arabs had fled on their own; some had been pushed out. (This position peeks out at us in the course of this interview.) Arab civilians had been killed as well. He then stood his findings on their head by concluding that while such incidents had occurred, they were the exception, and quite within the range of behavior of other armies. Moreover, he argued, they were justified in retrospect!
I found two vignettes especially interesting. The first concerns his reasons for championing draft exemptions for bnei yeshiva.
I ask Peres about Ben-Gurion’s agreement to waive the conscription to military service of the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, and to subsidize their Torah studies in yeshivas. Was this not a mistake, given today’s reality of massive exemptions from military service and the social crisis caused by massive government subsidies of the haredi tendency to have disproportionately large families and not work?
Peres: Ben-Gurion appointed me to negotiate the [exemption from service] with them. I think it was in 1951. I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer. At the time, we were talking about 100-150 yeshiva students altogether. The ultra-orthodox leaders said: If there is no exemption, the yeshivot will be established in other countries. [I thought:] Israel without yeshivot?
Peres implies that he is averse to today’s mass exemptions. He adds that he—and perhaps Ben-Gurion—expected the haredim to change over time and become productive members of society.
Peres: To be a haredi is not eternal.
Morris: It seems to be.
Haredi women are beginning to go to work; haredim are going to the army.
Morris: We’re still talking very small numbers.
Another vignette might make Rav Yisrael Salanter proud. One of the three prongs of Rav Yisrael’s formula for mussar growth was understanding kochos ha-nefesh, or what we would call astute comprehension of human behavior. According to President Peres, he achieved a key objective in crucial negotiations because his understanding of the Arab psyche in general – and that of Yasser Arafat in particular – was more important than what was written in the playbook for diplomatic maneuvering.
Morris: How did you speak?
In English. His English was poor. He was embarrassed [by it]. But in private he spoke freely in English. Let me tell you a story. About Hebron. We wanted to retain [part of] downtown Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the route to Kiryat Arba. In the end, it was decided Arafat and I would sit, alone, until there was smoke [i.e., until there was agreement]. I felt he was very nervous. He started talking in French, which he didn’t know. And he started tapping with his foot, what he always did when he was nervous. [Peres demonstrates.] I called him “rais” [Arabic for headman or president]. He called me “your excellency.” I said to him, “Rais, we can’t reach an agreement.”
I returned to my room. There, IDF head of Central Command, Gen. Ilan Biran, said: “This is catastrophic.” [He was referring to the fact that Arafat had not agreed to leave a small but crucial area of downtown Hebron in Israeli hands.] I go back to Arafat, knock on his door.
Arafat: “You all right?” Peres: “You got what you wanted. I didn’t. I left your room depressed. You are a general, I’m not. You are a president, and I’m not. You are an engineer, I’m not. You are a religious leader, I’m not. It’s no wonder that you got what you wanted and I negotiated like a fool.” Arafat: “Let me look at the map.” And then he agreed to what we wanted. He had received our respect, recognition. It worked.
Peres understood one of the most important principles of mediation. People’s stated goals are not always their real goals. Often, they are not fully aware of the real goals themselves. An experienced rebbe or rav or mediator can draw from experience and recognize what disputants really want and need, and solutions can be implemented when the other side can provide it.
(Thanks to Dr. Saul Newman for the tip.)