Peres’s legacy of an expectant faith in peace

He was Israel’s driver of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, which offered a model for Colombia’s peace process. Can Colombia’s peace pact now be a model for Israel?

AP Photo
In this 2001 photo, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, shakes hands with then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel in Gaza.

Few conflicts have lasted for generations like the one between Israelis and Palestinians. Despair remains high over ending their hostility. But this was not the case for Shimon Peres. The former Israeli leader was a key architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. While that pact eventually failed, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate always pointed to other conflicts, such as the one in Northern Ireland, that ended through a recognition by each side of the other’s dignity and interests.

Three years before his death on Sept. 28, Mr. Peres met with Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, to learn of that country's negotiations at ending a war that had lasted for half a century. Colombia’s eventual peace pact, which aims to end a civil war over ideology, is not an exact model to help Israelis and Palestinians. Their differences are rooted in religion, ethnicity, and historical grievances. Yet the Colombian process holds at least one important lesson: The first task is to break from the mental despair over what seems like endless violence. And if Peres was known for one thing, it was his perpetual search for opportunities of compromise and to see enemies as potential partners for peace.

In one respect, the Oslo peace process was a model for Colombia’s. Only after the Israeli military struck hard against a Palestinian uprising (intifada) in the late 1980s was there an opening for talks. Mr. Santos, when he was Colombia's defense minister, also struck down the leadership of the armed leftist rebels called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Like Israel, Colombia could not claim ultimate victory. But the ground was set for talks. The two sides were ready to tackle issues such as land restitution and disarmament.

For Peres, Israel had to be able to trade land for peace and to accept a pacified Palestinian state. This “two-state solution” now seems distant. Yet the logic of the Oslo pact remains: Israel’s long-range security rests on making peace with its neighbors, as it has already done with Egypt and Jordan. Its military superiority in the Middle East is not assured forever. Peaceful relations are a far better fortress and deterrence than nuclear weapons.

Peres often talked of the need for a “quantum leap” in Israel’s hope and quest for peace. In its talks with FARC rebels, Colombia was able to make such a leap, helping it to find the right balance between demands for justice and demands for mercy and freedom.

Such decisions are not always made easier by fatigue over war but rather by a faith that peace could be the norm. For many Israelis as well as Palestinians, Peres leaves a legacy of such a faith.

[Editor's note: An earlier version mistakenly referred to Peres meeting Santos in Colombia. The meeting took place in Jerusalem.]

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