The Book of Proverbs teaches us that where there is no vision, the people perish. The people of Israel, now bereft of Shimon Peres, will not perish, because survival—or, at least, muddling through—is a Jewish specialty. But the death of Israel’s greatest visionary, a man who understood that it would never be morally or spiritually sufficient for the Jews to build for themselves the perfect ghetto and then wash their hands of the often-merciless world, means that Israel has lost its chief optimist.
Peres was, for so many years, a prophet without honor in his own country, but he was someone who, late in life, came to symbolize Israel’s big-hearted, free-thinking, inventive, and democratic promise. Peres came to this role in part because he had prescience, verbal acuity, a feel for poetry, and a restless curiosity, but also because, gradually but steadily, he became surrounded by small men. One of the distressing realities of Israel today is that, in so many fields—technology, medicine, agriculture, literature, music, cinema—the country is excelling. But to Israeli politics go the mediocrities.
The chief mediocrity is Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and the spiritual nemesis of Peres. It is Netanyahu who symbolizes the Israel of the blind, the Israel that ignores the crumbling status quo, the Israel that has convinced itself that its hundred-year war will go on for another thousand years, the Israel that lives a Judaism out of balance, tragically captive to the rock-worshippers of the settlement movement. Peres, though guilty, earlier in life, of encouraging the settlement of the West Bank, was always wedded to the progressive Zionist notion that possession by the Jews of the Land of Israel was not an end in itself. Peres understood that the Jewish people have a mission larger than themselves, and that Israel could, in fact, do two things at once—survive in an inhospitable environment, and serve as a light to the nations, rather than be the nation that forever dwells alone.