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Ofer Bronchtein, a former advisor to Shimon Peres, gave FRANCE 24 an insider’s account of his working experience with the late Israeli statesman during one of the most hopeful periods in the country’s history.
On September 13, 1993, when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin grasped Yasser Arafat’s hand in the White House Rose Garden, Ofer Bronchtein was present at the historic event, enjoying what he calls “one of the most beautiful days of my life”.
The former advisor to Rabin was in charge of preparing and following up on the Oslo Accord, a job that saw him working closely with Rabin’s then foreign minister, Shimon Peres.
“I was lucky to be there with him on that historic day,” recalled Bronchtein. “The Oslo agreement was signed between Rabin and Arafat. But people forget that the hard work, the agreement itself, was reached between Peres and [Mahmoud] Abbas, who later became president of Palestine.”
Peres also went on to become president of his country — a nation that, despite his efforts, is still at war and has continued to betray the spirit of the peace deal by building settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 hours after the 93-year-old Israeli statesman died in hospital early Wednesday, Bronchtein acknowledged the lack of progress on a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he insisted it did not mean there was a lack of hope.
That optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Bronchtein noted, was a legacy of his mentor.
“He was the youngest old man I ever knew,” said Bronchtein. “Not only was he the youngest old man, but he was also one of the most optimistic men I have ever met and he contaminated us. We were contaminated by his spirit, his values and his work.”
That contamination lingers to this day in Bronchtein’s work as president of the Paris-based International Forum for Peace, which he co-founded with Anis al-Qaq, former Palestinian Authority ambassador to Switzerland. The two men became close friends in the wake of the Oslo agreement and they insist their centre, which works on peace initiatives, signifies their refusal to succumb to fatalism.
Political rivals, different styles
Bronchtein first met Peres in the late 1970s, shortly after finishing his mandatory service in the Israeli army. “I was very young, in my 20s. He was already a well-established politician and was very keen to meet young people,” he explained.
Barely two decades later, Bronchtein joined the Israeli Labour Party shortly before the 1992 elections, which saw Rabin, as party leader, serve as prime minister for the second time in Israeli history.
The rivalry within the Labour Party between Peres and Rabin, which had the two men at each other’s political throats, lasted almost half-a-century and tended to peak during primaries and backroom leadership duels.
It did not end when Rabin, as prime minister, appointed Peres foreign minister in 1992, nor did it end with the signing of the Oslo accord.
In his role as negotiator on the Israeli side, Bronchtein had an insider’s view of two very different styles by two very different men.
“Rabin was very shy, a very closed man. Peres was a communicator, a master of communication,” explained Bronchtein. “If I had to mention one negative aspect of Peres, it’s that he wanted to please everybody. He was a pathological charmer, he hugged everybody, he kissed everybody all the time. He was the opposite of Rabin, who was not a tactile person. Peres was a charmer. But as a politician, you cannot be loved by everyone.”
The two political rivals did however manage to work together during one of the most hopeful chapters in Israeli history.
Following Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995, by a Jewish right-wing extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords, Peres took over as acting prime minister and defence minister until the 1996 elections. But a series of attacks shortly before the elections saw the Likud party, led by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, win by a narrow majority and pave the way for the subsequent rightward slide in Israeli politics.
Not the best politician, but a great statesman
Despite his penchant to please everyone, Peres nonetheless possessed the qualities of a statesman, and a very good one at that, according to Bronchtein.
“He was probably not the best politician, but he was one of the greatest statesmen — for Israel and for the world,” said Bronchtein. “Peres was one of those leaders who doesn’t wake up in the morning and see what the newspapers are saying about him.
Polls didn’t matter to him. He used to say polls are like perfume – you can smell it, but you can’t drink it. He followed his ideals, his beliefs, his moral compass. It’s very rare for a politician to follow his beliefs and moral compass.”
That compass was pointed towards peace and did not falter even as he served in the Israeli defence ministry in the early years and watched the country’s disillusionment over the Oslo deal in his later years.
As director-general of Israel’s powerful defence ministry, Peres established the country’s secret nuclear weapons programme in the 1950s with British and French assistance. Bronchtein, however, believes Peres viewed the nuclear programme as a means of dissuasion and a guarantor of Israel’s security.
But the ultimate guarantor of Israeli security, Peres maintained, was peace.
“Like Rabin, he understood that peace was not just an agreement, but they had to give content to the peace, it had to be followed by a total change of attitude by the people,” said Bronchtein. “He promoted a people-to-people peace dynamic on the economic, cultural and civil society level. He understood that peace was just a piece of paper that had to be filled with content and that’s what he was trying to do and what he continued to do. His legacy to us is to continue to provide the content for peace in our daily lives, to take out the poison and build bridges that will really bring the Israeli and Palestinian people together.”
With his death, Israel has lost one of the last leaders of the founding generation, a figure who was part of almost every political development since the country’s birth in 1948. But in his dogged pursuit of peace, Peres has left behind a legacy that, Bronchtein insists, will never die.
“He stayed optimistic about his vision,” said Bronchtein, noting that in the months before his death, the elderly Israeli statesman continued to work at his Peres Centre for Peace and the Israeli Innovation Centre. “He was concerned by the fact that extremists were dictating the agenda of Israeli and Palestinian people. But at the same time, he believed the best way to guarantee the future was by education, science, culture and having a moral standing. And I have no doubt the younger generation will overcome the obstacles on the path to peace.”