The Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation Shimon Peres envisioned is as elusive as ever

Shimon Peres, shown in May, is being praised for his optimism on peace. “I hope very much that the idea of two independent states living side by side will not die with Peres,” a former aide said.
(Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

As the world mourns for former Israeli President Shimon Peres, the eulogies will be clouded by concern that the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation he had envisioned remains as remote as ever.

“At a time when he is leaving us, the idea of the two states is going through its worst days ever,’’ said Alon Liel, a former aide to Peres and a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “I hope very much that the idea of two independent states living side by side will not die with Peres.”

Peres, considered the last leader from Israel’s founding generation, was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for forging the Oslo peace accords a year earlier. Peres’ stroke this month occurred on the 23rd anniversary of the signing ceremony in Washington.


The subsequent peace negotiations were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, but the failure of the talks and repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have left years of stalemate and mutual mistrust.

Public support for a two-state solution among Israeli Jews dropped to 53% in June, from 70% nine years earlier, according to a poll conducted by Tamar Hermann, a political science professor and public opinion expert at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace and an ideal celebrated in Israel in the 1990s, became something of a dirty word in political discourse. Mention of it all but disappeared in recent election campaigns — an acknowledgement that many Israelis have soured on the prospects for new peace accords with the Palestinians and consider the goal of a two-state solution unlikely.

Israel’s cabinet convened in a special session of mourning Wednesday to observe a moment of silence in honor of Peres, who died early that morning at age 93.

“As a man of vision, he looked toward the future. As a man of security, he fortified the power of Israel in many ways,’’ said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “As a man of peace, he worked to his final days for reconciliation with our neighbors and for a better future for our children.”

But more than half of the members of Israel’s right-wing government remain opposed to a Palestinian state. Several leading members advocate annexation of parts of the West Bank. With the unchecked expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the occupied West Bank, observers worry that a two-state solution is being rendered impractical, while a “one-state reality,” in which the two sides will not be able to disentangle themselves from one another, is taking hold.


Peres’ death also comes at a time when Israeli parties that support the establishment of a Palestinian state are fractured, with no consensus on a political leader to represent the so-called peace camp in the next election. The former president’s vision of a new Middle East of economic interdependence and warm ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors is increasingly considered a pipe dream.

“There’s no visionary today that is taking up the mantle and promise of a new Middle East,’’ said David Makovsky, a former member of the U.S. team led by Secretary of State John Kerry that mediated talks between Israel and the Palestinians. “It’s much harder today for any visionary leader to come to the fore because of the complexity of the last 20 years. Once shattered, trust is hard to rebuild.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter of condolence to Peres’ family, praising the former president for the peace agreement with Rabin and Arafat, as well as his efforts to push for a permanent settlement between the two sides, according to Israel Radio. Abbas is suffering from plummeting popularity in the Palestinian territories in part because of the mothballed peace negotiations, the last round of which ended in the spring of 2014.

“Palestinians have mixed feelings toward Shimon Peres,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “Some see him as a peacemaker.”

But others see him as partially responsible along with Israel’s founding generation for the “Nakba,” displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war that created Israel. They also fault him for his role in helping to establish the first Israeli settlements in the northern part of the West bank in the 1970s. Palestinian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Israeli and international leaders released wistful condolence messages Wednesday in response to news of Peres’ passing from complications of a massive stroke he suffered Sept. 13. President Obama said that Peres “never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors — not even after the heartbreak of the night in Tel Aviv that took Yitzhak Rabin…. I can think of no greater tribute to his life than to renew our commitment to the peace that we know is possible.”


United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the sentiment, praising Peres for his optimism on peace and his desire to expand cooperation between Israel and the international community.

“May his spirit of determination guide us as we work to ensure peace security, and dignity for Israelis, Palestinians and all peoples of the region,’’ Ban said in a statement.

Some of Peres’ associates and former aides tried to sound upbeat about the prospects for peace. Peres’ biographer, Michael Bar Zohar, said the former president continued to believe that a two-state solution was possible, even though he faulted Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinian leadership.

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog insisted that Peres’ vision of a new Middle East is still possible. “Peres’ vision of a two-state solution is alive and kicking, even though it has its problems and stumbling blocks,” said Herzog.

Beginning Thursday, Peres’ coffin will lie in state on the plaza outside the Israeli parliament building in Jerusalem, allowing the public to pay last respects.

World leaders and dignitaries are planning to arrive in Israel for Peres’ funeral Friday. Within hours of Peres’ death before dawn on Wednesday at Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that it was expecting President Obama to attend.


Other dignitaries attending Peres’ funeral include U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, former President Bill Clinton, Britain’s Prince Charles, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Francois Hollande, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and German President Joachim Gauck.

Mitnick is a special correspondent.


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2:01 p.m.: Updated throughout with additional comment and details.

This article was originally published at 8:45 a.m.