In her 2014 book, The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers: When Hard-Liners Opt for Peace, political scientist Yael Aronoff described Shimon Peres’ “cognitive flexibility,” a characteristic, she argued, that allowed Peres “to listen to a variety of opinions and to think creatively.” You might say that his “cognitive flexibility” began to take shape in 1934 during his voyage from Vishnyeva, the Polish village where he was born, to mandate Palestine. Had he not left when he did, Peres may very well have not lived to see his 20s, let alone his 90s – most of those who stayed behind in Vishnyeva died in the Holocaust. For the rest of his life, Peres would straddle the line between the tradition, and ultimate tragedy, of European Jewry (he never could shake that Polish accent) and the new Jewish spirit germinating in what would become the State of Israel.
Certainly, his political career was characterized by flexibility. Peres was, in order, head of the navy, head of the Defence Ministry’s American delegation, director general of the Ministry of Defence (at age 29, no less), member of the Knesset, minister of immigrant absorption, minister of transportation and communications, minister of information – and that’s just up until 1977. In the wake of the 1984 Knesset elections, he would add prime minister and foreign minister to his resume. After the ’88 election, he became vice-premier and finance minister. In 1992, he had a second stint as foreign minister under Yitzhak Rabin, and when Rabin was killed, he acted as prime minster and defence minister until elections were held. In 2001, he was appointed foreign minister for a third time. In 2006, Ehud Olmert made him his vice-prime minister and minister for the development of the Negev, Galilee and regional economy. A year later, he was elected president.
For a long time, political observers – even those in his own Labor party – thought of Peres as a “loser.” With a resumé like that, it’s clear that he wasn’t, even if his career featured a fair share of defeat and failure. It is probably not even accurate to describe Peres as a hawk, or a dove. He was both, which is perhaps another way of saying he was neither.
He led the effort to supply the Israeli army with weapons in the years before the United States offered assistance, and, by all but the official account, he was instrumental in the development of Israel’s nuclear program. Later, Peres helped lay the groundwork for peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, and the Oslo accords, which might be classified as an ambitious failure.
He was, ultimately, a dreamer. “A man may feel as old as his years, yet as young as his dreams,” Peres said in his 1994 Nobel Peace Prize speech. “The laws of biology do not apply to sanguine aspiration.”
To believe in one’s dreams – to attempt to translate those dreams into reality as he did – required a unique flexibility. It’s not a trait we tend to associate with politicians these days, Israeli or otherwise. And maybe that is the most significant thing we have lost now that Shimon Peres is gone.