Shimon Peres, Israel’s former prime minister, president and 1994 Nobel Peace laureate, completed his final book, No Room For Small Dreams, a poignant memoir, as well as a work of history, only a few weeks before his death in September 2016. It’s an amazingly moving and inspiring account of seven decades of the public life of a legendary leader, who spent his first 25 years in great hardship with almost no possessions except for a heart full of big dreams and impossible hope. Born in Vishnyeva, Poland, Peres moved to Israel at the age of 11 years and went on to become one of the country’s founding fathers; Vishnyeva was his cocoon, but in Israel, he grew wings. During this remarkable journey, from his farming days in the Ben Shemen Youth Village to bowing out in 2014 after seven years as the ninth president of Israel, Peres also served twice as prime minister, and held every senior cabinet position, including foreign minister, defence minister and finance minister for the state he helped build. Never one to retire, he continued his pursuit of peace in the fragile, violence-prone region through the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. “If you work for peace, you will have no more loyal a friend than me. If you turn your back on peace you will have no worse enemy than me,” Peres writes in the book. The most vocal dove of later years was actually “Israel’s most assertive hawk” to start with. He spent two decades chasing war before beginning his lifelong struggle for peace; “it was not me that changed; it was the situation that changed”.
The book travels along Israel’s ascent in the world, skimming landmarks such as the War of Independence, the creation of its military might, how Peres took upon the task of building its weaponry for self-defence, the struggle for peace with Arab neighbours, the start of the nuclear programme, launching the high-tech industry and a start-up spirit in Israel, and the journey from financial crisis to prosperity. The boy, who was inspired by his grandfather to steer the Zionist movement and build a state for Jews, always had leadership in him. In this book, he also discusses what being a leader is all about—he believed that leaders should not exercise power; instead, they should become servants of a great cause. In his lifetime, he faced a series of hard choices and quick decision-making, beginning with the negotiations, when he was only 23 years old, for the two-state formula with the charismatic David Ben-Gurion, later prime minister, whose support and unwavering trust he enjoyed in his formative years.
One of the reasons Ben-Gurion doted on Peres is because he never asked anything for himself. He appointed Peres to transform the Haganah, which later became the Israeli Defense Forces. Peres realised that the nascent country had bullets for a week to defend itself should a war break out, which led him to, ironically, stockpile arms built by the Germans, the very weapons earlier used against the Jews, bought from Czechoslovakia, then later France and the US. The book also talks about how he secretly built the Dimona nuclear reactor with French help away in the Negev desert, and about the building of the Israeli aerospace industries and the Rafael missile programme. There are many interesting behind-the-scenes narratives of famous incidents—the daring Entebbe raid of 1976 to rescue hostages, where they lost their commander prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, and the moving incidents during and after the assassination in 1995 of Yitzak Rabin, his prime minister and fellow Nobel Prize-winner.
But the ultimate triumph of Peres’ vision was in building the economic spine of the immigrant, hardworking nation, and in creating a nation fuelled by innovation and science and technology. Today, Israel has 350 global enterprises and 6,000 start-ups, building great technologies. As Peres’ youngest child, Nechemia, or Chemi, co-founder of venture capital fund Pitango, told Knowledge@Wharton during the book’s release, “I think he could be described as the founder of the start-up nation… The lasting legacy of my father is the notion that we are transitioning from a world of territories to a world of science and technology. Greatness came in the old era by building military and going to war and confiscating land and natural resources, and cheap labour. Today, we can create energy, food and water with science and technology.”
Although Peres talks about his decades of struggle for peace and proudly driving the process, he never once refers to the tragedy that Palestinians still suffer from in their territories, nor is there any analysis or reflection with empathy. Sadly, it must have been an equal tragedy for him to observe the peace process practically reach a dead end after the assassination of Rabin. Today, his Arab peace solution is practically still-born; there is no dialogue, and Peres himself was pragmatic enough to not naively expect “a perfect peace”, but “a peace of necessity”. But he remained optimistic of the younger generation. As he closes the book, he writes, “The road will be littered with obstacles. But it remains the only one worth travelling.”
Indeed, Peres was a diehard optimist. As Chemi described his father: “Once he was asked, ‘Mr Peres, how come you are so optimistic in this world?’ He said, ‘You know, I tried being pessimistic, it didn’t work.’ … He would never be desperate, would never be a cynic, would never be a skeptic because he thinks that pessimists never found a star in the sky. He was constantly looking for stars in the sky.” Coming a decade after Battling for Peace, the memoir that Peres actually wrote in 1995, No Room for Small Dreams could very well be Peres’ last letter to the new generation to never give up, not just in Israel and Palestine, but also in the whole world. It’s his last call for leadership defined by morality and a sense of service for leaders who use their imagination more than their memory of the past to transform the world through the power of ideas and bring peace through innovation.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer