Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Perez at the Sandton Convention Centre, in Johannesburg
The phrase “peace in our time” has become infamous after its use by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain following his Munich meeting with Hitler in 1938, which was seen as a capitulation to the dictator’s demands.
Recently Shimon Peres, twice Prime Minister of Israel and later President, addressed the South African Jewish community in the upmarket Sandton Convention Centre with a similar message, but with definitely no hint of appeasement.
In his speech, in the form of an interview with a former colleague of mine, Paula Slier, he expressed the opinion that there was an old, outdated way of seeking solutions and a better, more modern one. Speaking of his youth in the 1940s in British Mandated Palestine, he said:
“I was as you said, on a Kibbutz. We were enthusiastic but we didn’t know what to do. We are the most lonely nation in the world. No sister, no religion, no brother, no language, no partner. “
He contended that after independence, Israel became successful because of science and technology.
“We did it in our own country; no one gave us anything. And what we could do others can do. And in spite of our smallness, we became a contributing country.
Peres argued that Palestinians and many Arab countries and organisations are stuck in an outdated way of thinking, which contributes to the lack of peace in the Middle East:
“They are thinking of the old age of land. But with science, you can become great without making anybody poor. You don’t need an army to be wise. You need a good head and a good heart. We all have it. We must tell our young people you have the talent, you have the capacity. Don’t waste your young age on nothing whatsoever. The smallest thing in life is the human ego. The greatest thing in life is serving a great cause. And to serve a great cause is to serve others. If you serve others you will get meaningfulness in your life. Better to make friends than to make enemies. Nobody can make from us enemies. We weren’t born to be enemies. We were born to be friends and each of us, as Moses has said, was born in the image of God. Nobody has the right to defile it, take note.”
“I am telling Arab governments: Look, you too have to fight terror, but not necessarily by buying guns and killing terrorists. Let’s better fight the reasons for terror: What are they? Insult: You shouldn’t insult anybody. Poverty: We can overcome poverty. You asked about changing the country, but in the meantime, the world has changed as well. Today you make a living not from having land and territory and going to war, today you have a new option.
“They think that terror will break Israel? They (Arabs) will discover that terror is as dangerous to them as it is to Israel. I see (refugees) and my heart is with them. And they will learn soon enough that terror leads to nowhere but to tragedies and I hope that they will commit their youngsters to enter the world of science and technology where they can make a living.”
Asked what would happen if agreement was not reached with the Palestinians, he said it would simply have to be achieved later. He asked:
“What is the alternative? To kill each other? … I remember the days when people said ‘no chance there will be peace with Egypt’. Abdel Nasser called for the destruction of Israel. There never will be peace. (King) Abdallah (of Jordan) met Golda Meir and would not talk to her about peace. And look now!”
Shimon Peres was one of the three architects of the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, which created the Palestinian Authority, along with Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, for which the three earned the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was not always a “dove”.
He joined the pre-independence Jewish militia, the Haganah, in 1947, took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was instrumental in the 1956 Sinai war and he played a key role in Israel obtaining the Mirage fighter jet from France. He was defence minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and he ordered the dramatic rescue of Jewish hostages from Idi Amin’s Uganda during the Entebbe Raid in 1976.
But throughout this time, he also sought a negotiated peace. His first try was at a secret meeting in London at the home of Lord Victor Mischon in 1987. He explained how that happened:
“We met at the house of Lord Mischon, a wonderful, a great person. His daughter and the daughter of King Hussein studied at the same school and they became friends. As a result, he made friends with King Hussein and we met at his place. Lady Mischon sent away all the staff and she herself served the dinner. And there were many (people at the table) … five or six. Then she went to wash the dishes. I said to the king, ‘It’s not fair, let’s help her’. The king said: ‘Totally right.’ That was our first agreement!”
Peres rejected the accusation made by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) group that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was tantamount to Apartheid, made during their “Israel Apartheid Week”. Speaking in South Africa, this accusation would carry more weight than in most countries. He said:
“There is no single word in our law that discriminates people; nothing whatsoever. Apartheid was racism. In Israel racism is a crime. We fought wars with the Arabs seven times. Then we made peace with the Arabs. They say: ‘The Jews and the Arabs cannot live together.’ Nonsense! We have peace with Egypt, the largest Arab country. We live in peace and friendship. You know the Egyptians are having some problems in Sinai, we are trying to help as much as we can. We made peace with Jordan, the nearest Arab country. To this very day (after) 34 years. Without accusation(s). Would you call it Apartheid?“
Peres was also very positive about South Africa. Like many observers, he pointed out that most South Africans were young people. He offered the same solution to South Africa as to the Arab nations: science and technology. He had been a friend of Nelson Mandela, and spoke of him:
“Why is Nelson Mandela in my eyes a very unique man? Because he is the only one that I can think, that fought for freedom; it was very costly, he was put in prison. And once he became president, he decided to establish the court of reconciliation. He called in all the people who tortured his brothers, who killed his sisters he told them, “tell the truth, don’t be afraid”, and they told the truth. And instead of being punished, they were forgiven. It never happened before, never!
“I have a South African friend. I asked him, “How did it happen?” He said: “My friend, in every South African person you will find a small Nelson Mandela. I wish every person will have inside him this small Nelson Mandela.”
The latest anti-white racist violence in the country, the high crime rate and the sliding economy may suggest otherwise, but perhaps South Africans could remember Mandela, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, or King Moshoeshoe (also Moshweshwe) who was a peacemaker in the midst of the terrible Mfecane launched by Zulu King Shaka, and emulate those who stood for peace and reconciliation.
Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist based in Pretoria, South Africa.