I write on my way back from Jerusalem, where we honoured the memory of one of the greatest men of peace of our age, Shimon Peres. I met him for the first time in 2002, together with a small delegation of socialist youth organisations – it was the same trip when I also met Yasser Arafat. I was struck by his smile, his warmth, his humour, his depth and levity, his willingness to listen, to talk, to share with us his thoughts and his experience. A Foreign Minister of Israel, with kids who had grown up dreaming peace after the Oslo agreements.
The last time I met him he was about to leave the Presidency. He talked with enthusiasm of his plans for the future, the great projects he had with young Arabs and Israelis to foster hope, to strengthen the readiness to live together, and the joy to live together. The last time we spoke, a few months ago, he explained to me how these plans where moving forward, and how to support them. And also, obviously, we discussed how to shake life back into a peace process that seems to be gone, between Israel and the Palestinians. He always encouraged me to stand my ground, to keep looking for a way forward, for a step – even a small one – that would reverse the trend and reopen channels for dialogue, for peace, for hope. Little big steps that could lead to the two States – even when everyone says that “the conditions are not there.” Creating the conditions is our job.
This is what I discussed last night, at length, with Benjamin Netanyahu. Today he said important words, when he recognised that there’s truth in what Peres has always said: only peace can bring security to Israel. And an important gesture came from Mahmoud Abbas, too. His presence at Shimon’s funeral and the handshake with Netanyahu, this morning, represent one of those little big steps that might lead us far. The path is the one marked by Peres: a path of hope, of hope in peace.
Peres was a hope-builder – and hope is the most scarce and precious currency in these times of ours. Bill Clinton said it perfectly today: “I always was in awe of his endless capacity to move beyond even the most crushing setbacks, in order to seize the possibilities of each new day… His critics often claimed he was a naïve, overly optimistic dreamer. They were only wrong about the naïve part. He knew exactly what he was doing in being overly optimistic… He never gave up on anybody, I mean anybody.”
A friend I met today at the ceremony shared with me a wonderful story. Peres once met a young man asking him whether his generation would ever see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Shimon answered: “I don’t know whether you will see it, kid, but I see it very well.”
He was a hope-builder, not because he couldn’t see the dramas and the setbacks. He knew that hope is the strongest engine of change in history. And dreams give is the strength to realise great things, to continue pursuing that one possibility, to work to seize it, or build it. His eyes were always looking at the future.
This was the message he left us, in his last speech as the President of Israel:
I remember when experts used to say that Egypt will never sign a peace treaty with us. That Jordan will never agree to peace with Israel before Syria does so. That there will never rise a camp against terror among the Palestinians. That never will Arab leaders raise their voices for peace and against terror, in their own language and not just in English, in Arab countries and not just in Europe. Arab leaders that condemn kidnappings and are open to land swaps. Arab leaders that are for two states while one of them is clearly the State of Israel which is a Jewish homeland in its nature and in its constitution.
There was never an expert that could have predicted that one day the Arab League (…) would suggest a proposal of its own for a path towards peace, not only between Israelis and Palestinians but with all Arab countries.
As Ben Gurion said: “There are no experts for the future, only experts for the past.” Indeed, the future requires believers, not necessarily experts. The future is built. Not inherited from prophets.