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Shimon Peres
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


October 5, 2016



When I learned of Shimon Peres's death, my mind flashed back to May 29, 1996, when my husband and I lived in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. It was the night of the fateful election between Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu.




We had arrived to spend a year in Jerusalem in November 1995, just after Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated, and Peres had taken over after his death.  He was expected to sail to victory in the election against Netanyahu, or so it appeared from the Israeli media, which had a more left-wing complexion.




But then, something began to happen. There were repeated bus bombings and other terror attacks, that didn't let up and undermined confidence in the peace process, and the Oslo accords, of which Peres was an architect.




We felt the effects of the terror attacks as my husband , who was working in intensive care at Hadassah Hospital in Ein kerem, treated many of the victims up close. Some of those in the hospital didn't make it. My husband would return home late in the evening,  exhausted, with distressing details about the toll the bombings were taking.




After the first bus bombing, I stopped taking buses to work in the centre of the city, driving instead in our white Subaru, even though it was difficult to find parking anywhere near where I worked as a lawyer at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. But after hearing first hand from my husband about the victims of terror he had treated, there was no way I would take a bus again.




I had genuinely believed in the Oslo Accords and the two state solution and supported Peres's views, but all the repeated terror attacks in from February 1996 onwards had undermined my confidence that the Palestinians truly wanted to make peace.




After the bus bombings, Israel imposed a closure (a "seger") to prevent Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel. Yet under the Oslo Accords , which Peres had negotiated, Israel had made a commitment to allow West Bank Palestinians  to enter Israel even during  a closure in the event they needed to seek urgent medical care. There were a number of Palestinians who turned to the Association for Civil Rights where I worked when they were not  granted the necessary entry permits by the Israeli military to obtain urgent medical care. I remember that we intervened on behalf of a Palestinian resident of Jenin who had significant heart problems. He was being treated on an ongoing basis as an outpatient at Hadassah Hospital, and  had not been granted a permit from the military to enter Israel. With our help he obtained the necessary approval. We also intervened to enable a Palestinian father to see his nine year old daughter, who was dying in an Israeli hospital. The military had refused him an entry permit, a decision which was overturned after our intervention. 




I was very aware of the fact through my work that there were innocent Palestinians who did not support the terror attacks, and yet these attacks continued, and were not really condemned by Palestinian leaders, even the supposed moderate ones.. And with each attack Peres's victory seemed less and less assured, albeit the Israeli media polls showed him to be in the lead.




Peres's strategy in the election campaign was to appear to be Presidential and to run the country, and ignore the election rather than get involved in the nitty gritty of the campaign.Peres was initially buoyed by sympathy for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jew who opposed any concessions that would have Israel withdraw from  Judea and Samaria (the West bank). Peres's strategy was to put the campaign to sleep. Since the polls showed he had a comfortable lead, he felt he didn't need to put his case to the nation. It turned out to be a terrible strategy as Bibi Netanyahu was going to Mahane Yehuda, the public market in Jerusalem, and other sites where the public gathered. He was out there meeting the people, fighting for every vote. The Labour party in that campaign barely referred to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for fear that it would alienate swing voters. 




Bibi Netanyahu's Likud party repeatedly aired one commercial that resonated in the hearts of Israeli voters. As parts of a sheet of glass were shattered one by one, a scene was gradually revealed of Peres and Arafat walking hand in hand up a set of stairs. With each shattered piece falling away, the narrator listed Arafat’s complicity with terrorism, his desire to divide Jerusalem, and Peres’ complicity with Arafat’s plan . The message was that Peres was betraying Israel by entrusting its security to PLO leader Yassir Arafat. More and more Israelis by then had soured on the notion of Arafat as a peace maker. 




In Israel, election day is a national holiday, one that is designed to ensure everyone can get out to vote, and it may be one of the reasons that the voter turnout is always high. I spent the day talking to people at cafes in Ein Kerem




The first results came in at ten that evening,  I remember vividly the face and voice of newscaster Chaim Yavin, of Channel 1 Israeli TV as he opened the broadcast with the words: "Teyku Im Itaron Kal Le Peres"--which translated into English meant : A Tie with a Slight Advantage to Peres.




It had been a cliffhanger of a race after all,  but the newscasters were clearly predicting and reporting that although it was close, Peres had won the election. It was based on exit polls which the news stations reported as being accurate.




I stayed up all night watching as Labour party officials and television news analysts all spoke about the Peres victory. My husband went to sleep after midnight thinking Peres had won.




I continued to stayed up, riveted to the television, enjoying all the analysis. At about four in the morning, more and more people started filing into Bibi Netanyahu's headquarters as news filtered in that Peres was now indeed tied with Netanyahu and not in the lead. I remember being stunned by this change. The wind now appeared to be in Netanyahu's sails. There was talk of the soldiers’ vote which always came in late and might tilt toward Netanyahu.




By seven that morning as my husband awoke and began to get ready for work, the news was predicting a razor thin Netanyahu victory. Newscaster Chayim Yavin was now using the word "Mahapach"-which means "A Turn-Over", a "Revolution."  As most Israelis awoke, the party at Netanyahu headquarters was beginning. Netanyahu won by a mere 30,000 votes. Most people in the country got into work late, as they were too glued to their television screens. 




In liberal secular Tel Aviv, Peres supporters gathered at the site of Yitzhak Rabin's slaying, laying red and white wreaths at the foot of the stairs where he was shot seven months earlier. "Rabin was killed on November 4 -- Peres was killed on May 29," one sign read.




Peres later blamed the wave of suicide bombings for his defeat. He described his visit to the scene of a deadly bus explosion in Jerusalem, where people started screaming "killer" and "murderer" at him. "I knew that I lost the election," he said.






Peres’s had two stints as prime minister – from 1984 to 1986 as part of a rotational government with Yitzhak Shamir (since the two had tied in an election) , and for the  seven months in 1995 and 1996 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin . He ran to be Prime Minister  five times from 1977 and 1996, but he never won a national election outright. The opening broadcast of the 1996 elections by newscaster Chayim Yavin who declared "A Tie With a slight Advantage to Peres"  was probably  the closest that Peres ever came to being elected as Prime Minister.




And yet, Peres was very resilient, always optimistic, and was working for the State until he recently had his massive stroke. A story circulated when Peres and Rabin were competing for the leadership of Labour that the cafeteria staff in the Knesset was solidly in Peres’ camp. He knew them all by name, greeted them, and would ask about their families, and they loved him for it. Rabin in contrast, was felt to be cold, and more aloof.  After his many political defeats, Peres returned to the public stage by becoming a very popular President of Israel. He had been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, and was a man that the world associated with Israel's desire to achieve peace. Peres was unquestionably a founding father of the State of Israel, a man who made any contributions to the State, not least of which was being responsible for the development of Israel's nuclear program in Dimona. Peres is the only man to have ever served in all four top government jobs − defense, foreign and finance minister, as well as prime minister.  By the time of his death, the label of perpetual loser had dissolved, overcome by his tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and drive, and his many accomplishments in the service of his country.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.