No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination and the Making of Modern Israel, by Shimon Peres, Custom House Books, 227 pages, $27.99 hardcover
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
With the title of his autobiography, Shimon Peres dismisses those who’ve derided him for decades as a dreamer.
Peres arrived from Poland in 1934, an 11-year-old dreaming of kibbutz farming. In a few years, David Ben-Gurion had found him hardworking and reliable, giving him jobs of great responsibility — leading eventually to the Knesset, eight Israeli cabinet ministries, the prime ministry and the presidency.
In No Room for Small Dreams, Peres calls himself “still that curious boy, enamored of hard questions, eager to dream and unbowed by the doubt of others.”
Peres fulfilled two of his “impossible dreams”: an alliance with France — leading to a nuclear reactor — and an Israeli aircraft industry. Overcoming resistance, he fathered the Oslo accords, a peace dream unfulfilled when Peres died Sept. 28, 2016, at 93, a month after completing this book and after a lifetime of optimism and accusations of naiveté.
“Optimism and naiveté are not one and the same,” he says. “That I am an optimist does not mean that I expect a peace of love; I expect, simply, a peace of necessity.”
Peres’ life is hardly unknown, but Dreams offers interesting details, including the 1987 agreement with King Hussein intended to resolve “the Palestinian question.” It was scuttled by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Dream is an easy, conversational read. Autobiographies carry risk of self-glorification, but Peres doesn’t claim sole credit for achievements. Taken at face value, Dreams shows that optimism coupled with intelligence, diplomacy and persistence – plus being at the right place at the right time — can pay off.
A youth on scholarship to Ben-Shemen Youth Village, Peres found success in often-heated political debates. “It helped, I am sure, that even as a teenager I was blessed with an unusually deep baritone voice, one that lent my words the aura of authority, even when it hadn’t been earned.”
His persuasive powers apparently brought him to the attention of B-G, who took him from caring for sheep at Kibbutz Alumot to youth-movement headquarters to preach B-G’s approach to statehood.
In May 1947, when Jews had bullets enough for only six days’ war, B-G tapped Peres to acquire weapons, of which he knew little beyond the rifle with which he’d helped guard the kibbutz.
But as with aviation and later nuclear reactors, he studied hard; learned quickly; built relationships with arms dealers, smugglers and foreign politicians, and took secret missions with disguises and fake passports.
He became a B-G adviser and confidant, to the annoyance of some senior Zionist leaders.
Living postwar in New York for college, Peres made a trip to California, where Israel supporter Al Schwimmer was resurrecting scrapped warplanes, including El Al’s first airliner. Peres brought B-G to the semi-clandestine operation. B-G insisted Schwimmer set up in Israel, leading eventually to Israel Aircraft Industries. B-G ordered Peres home, a few credits shy of graduating, making him deputy director of the defense ministry. He was 29.
Peres says he spent the first two decades of his career preparing for war, called “a hawk without compromise.” Later Israel’s leading dove, “it was not me that changed,” he says. “It was the situation that changed.” Peace seemed possible.
Peres’ relationships with French politicians got Israel the reactor, a just-ousted premier signing a letter of approval and dating it the day before.
B-G wanted the reactor, but his cabinet did not — as it later didn’t want a computer — Finance Minister Levi Eshkol saying he’d never supply one penny. So Peres and B-G solicited donations, raising half the cost so construction could begin.
The Entebbe rescue, proposed by Air Force commander Benny Peled, was rejected as impossible, but Peres persisted, creating a working group that refined the plan until Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin approved. Success was uncertain. “One of the hardest things for some leaders to understand [is that] a decision can be right even if it leads to failure,” he says.
That also might be said of Oslo, but Peres, who overcame resistance to its negotiations, died still optimistic, writing: “I believe that peace is not only possible, but inevitable.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 9.22.17)