There was always an intriguing dichotomy between the late President Shimon Peres’ ability to bring to reality his vision for the future of Israel. On the one hand, it had been seemingly quite easy for Peres to lead Israel to the forefront of science and technology, but on the other hand, so much harder to lead Israel towards peace.
What was it that made Peres and those who subscribed to his leadership philosophy different from other Israeli leaders and diplomats who saw any development in the Middle East from a “worst case scenario” perspective and who saw threats rather than opportunities? Why is it that Israelis – who are so creative, risk-taking and dynamic when it comes to technology, art and culture – are so fearful, risk-averse and rigid when it comes to security and diplomacy?
After many years working alongside him, I’ve boiled the “Peres Philosophy” down to the following four core elements: Orientation Towards the Future, Everlasting Optimism, Responsibility and Initiative, and a Win-Win Perspective. I strongly believe that Peres’ philosophy is sorely lacking from today’s political landscape and is desperately needed in order to continue Israel on a path towards becoming a leader not only in technology and innovation, but in the wider sense of national security and international diplomacy as well.
How the Peres Philosophy Shaped my Politics & Diplomatic Approach
I was first introduced to the “Peres Philosophy” of leadership and diplomacy in March 1993, when I completed the new diplomats’ cadet course at the Foreign Ministry and was sent to the Foreign Minister’s office as a junior staffer. It was a pivotal moment early on in my career that shaped my approach as a diplomat and foreign policy advisor, and later in my role at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation where I continue to work to implement Shimon Peres’ vision.
My journey by President Peres’ side is perhaps surprising given my early political influences. I was raised on Kibbutz Manara, on the border with Lebanon that had been founded by my parents. As a youth, I was strongly influenced by my father, who was active both in the Kibbutz and Labor movements, concerned primarily with issues of defense and relations with Arab communities. My father was close to Yigal Alon, Israel Galili and eventually Yitzhak Rabin, whose sister Rachel was, along with my parents, part of the group of pioneers who founded the Kibbutz in 1943. All of these figures were leaders of the Haganah – the pre-state Jewish paramilitary organization the preceded the IDF – and all were political rivals of Ben Gurion’s camp, of which Shimon Peres was a part.
I was also strongly influenced by my service as an officer in the IDF and I admired the masculine leadership style of military Generals such as Rabin. Conversely, I saw Peres as a politician with a funny accent and not as a leader.
Nonetheless, it was to the office of then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that I was sent as a young graduate of the diplomats’ cadet course. My placement there wasn’t more than a coincidence – Peres’ chief of staff, Avi Gil, wanted to add someone young and fresh to the team, someone without the baggage of the Foreign Ministry’s organizational culture. Apparently, the training department thought that I was ripe enough.
Despite my preconceptions of the qualities of a strong leader, I felt from my first days on Peres’ team as though I had the best job in the world. Not only was Peres’ Foreign Ministry leading the Oslo process – a unique situation in Israel’s political history, which has seen the Foreign Ministry typically marginalized from matters of national security – but I also felt fortunate to be working alongside the incredibly smart and creative team hand-selected by Peres: Yossi Beilin as Deputy Minister, Uri Savir as Director General and Avi Gil as Chief of Staff. None of these men were military men with the kind of outward machismo I once identified with strong leadership.
Following Rabin’s assassination, Peres became Prime Minister and I remained in the Foreign Minister’s office under Ehud Barak, who entered politics after a decorated military career that culminated with him serving as IDF Chief of the General Staff. For me, it put into sharp contrast the difference in leadership styles between the two and I began to align myself even more closely to Peres’ vision and philosophy.
What made Peres so different?
To understand what made Peres a unique leader among leaders, one must first understand something about the Israeli psyche: We are a traumatized people. Our collective past – the Holocaust, the pogroms and the anti-Semitism that Jews encountered when in exile – is present in every current conversation about Israel’s national security and is the root of our obsession with security and self-sufficiency.
The first time I came to this realization was on an educational trip to Nazi death camps in Poland. I saw the reactions of those around me and it became clear that most of us continue to carry the trauma of the past on from previous generations.
But I had been raised on a Kibbutz, where I was taught that Israelis are a new kind of Jew who are strong, who work the land and who have nothing to fear anymore. It was on that trip that I learned that most of us are, however, still mentally in the shtetels of Europe.
Peres should have been as traumatized as anybody else. He had come to Israel from a shtetel at age 11 and the grandfather he had so admired, the Chief Rabbi of Vishniva, had been burned alive by the Nazis in his synagogue along with his entire congregation. And yet, Peres strongly believed that it was not enough for Zionism to take the Jew out of the shtetel to Israel, but that we must also take the shtetel out of the Jewish mentality.
Peres believed that the Jews of Israel had to learn to leave this trauma in the past, as it does not serve us in our present.
With this understanding, I came to subscribe to a new leadership style embodied by Peres, who unlike other Israeli leaders, neither shared the same sense of “victimhood” as the Israeli public nor manipulated it to his advantage.
Responsibility and Initiative
My first foreign post as political advisor was to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., where I learned a lot about diplomacy and had the chance to put into practice some of the most significant insights I learned from Peres and his team, the first of which was a sense of responsibility and initiative over our diplomatic relations.
Peres believed that the role of Zionism was to change the destiny of the Jewish people from that of an object of history to that of a subject of history. With our own state we can define our own fate. Unlike the Jews of the Diaspora, who were always dependent on the decisions of others, it was time, Peres believed, that we take responsibility and initiative ourselves. Peres was very much influenced in this regard by his mentor, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who insisted on declaring Israel’s independence even though he knew that it would mean a war with all her neighbors.
An extension of this attitude, Peres had no patience for the “blame game” in which Arab leaders blame their problems on Israel and the fact that we were forced upon them, and in turn Israel blames its problems on Arab terrorism and European anti-Semitism.
Peres didn’t think that Israel needed to wait for the Middle East to become a utopia in order to achieve peace – he believed in initiating and achieving peace with our neighbors as they existed, tough as they may be. He always said that there are two things in life that one couldn’t achieve unless one closed his or her eyes a little bit — love and peace. If you look for perfection, you will achieve neither.
Throughout my diplomatic career, I was confronted with cases in which Israel avoided taking responsibility for its own faults. For example, after being asked by the Embassy Congressional Affairs Department to address Israel’s record on female trafficking, I received information from the Foreign Ministry that showed a very positive image of Israel’s handling of the issue. I knew that this information was more flattering than reality, and that in fact it was a big issue that was not being addressed sufficiently at the time. A better approach, in my opinion, would have been to take responsibility and initiative to acknowledge the problem and to ask for help in solving it in cooperation with Congress and by learning best practices from other countries.
When you blame others, you exonerate yourself from any corrective actions and Peres believed that in order to improve our relations with others, we must first improve ourselves and address our own problems. He believed taking initiative and responsibility over Israel’s relations.
Win-Win, not Zero-Sum
When I returned to Israel from Washington in August 2001 – one month before 9/11 – I was happy to rejoin Peres’ foreign ministry as policy advisor to his Director General Avi Gil. But when the Labor party left the Sharon government and Peres left the Foreign Ministry, I decided to pursue my master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government thanks to a generous fellowship I received from the Wexner Foundation. It was during my studies that I first internalized the next important lesson I had learned from Peres: an emphasis on win-win, not zero-sum solutions.
Peres always looked for win-win opportunities and avoided zero-sum predicaments. It seems like a cliché, but it is not, because human instinct by default draws us to try to win in totality rather than choosing mutually beneficial solutions. Perhaps this instinct made sense when humans were survivalists in the wild, but it no longer serves us in today’s modern world.
For me, this concept came into perspective during a negotiation workshop at Harvard in which my classmates and I were told to pair up for an arm-wrestling tournament, with a $10 prize for each match won. Only a few in the class understood that we could win more money through cooperation rather than competition – that if we agreed to let each other succeed we could win more matches and share the winnings.
It didn’t take a Harvard education for Peres to understand that there is no inherent conflict between empathy and advocacy. He used to inquire before and during every meeting about the other side’s culture and interests. He pushed me to conduct extensive research before every one of his diplomatic meetings, which were fascinating exchanges that always began with a compliment to the other side and learning what they wanted before getting to what we wanted. I saw how this approach made Peres’ meetings so much more productive than other meetings I had participated in with other statesmen, who always focused on their own talking points and achieved far less.
Because of this approach, Peres understood that peace is made between former enemies and not current friends. He tried to find common ground even with the worst rivals and understood that there is a spectrum of relations including hybrids (or “frenemies”) who can be an enemy on one issue but a friend on another.
I found this approach very relevant to public diplomacy throughout my career as a diplomat, though it was completely counter-intuitive to everything I had been taught at the Foreign Ministry. Most politicians and the public in Israel expect diplomats to “win the debate” in order to achieve positive public opinion for Israel. But I learned through experience what Peres understood intuitively – that more important than “winning the debate” was “winning hearts and minds,” and you don’t win hearts and minds in a debate but rather through dialogue and engagement with people who think differently than you do.
The next time I had the privilege to work with Peres was during his presidency. I had been serving as Consul General to the New England region and felt at the time that I was at the top of my career and completely “in my element” as a diplomat. But this sense of fulfillment came to a screeching halt when the Netanyahu government took office in Jerusalem in 2009.
It became difficult for me to represent the government’s new foreign policy and, in an attempt to influence the system from within, I sent a controversial internal memo that was leaked to the Israeli media.
I returned to Israel from Boston quite depressed, knowing that there would be no plum position waiting for me at the Foreign Ministry after this incident and knowing that I could not in good conscious continue working as an obedient civil servant for a government that was, in my opinion, leading Israel in the wrong direction.
Just when I thought my career as a diplomat had reached a dead end, I received a call from the Director General of the Presidency, Efrat Duvdevani, who encouraged me to apply for an open position as diplomatic advisor to President Shimon Peres. I got the position, and my life was transformed. Because no door was ever closed for Shimon Peres, and because every leader was eager to benefit from his wisdom, I had the unique privilege of meeting nearly all of the world’s leaders as I advised Peres over the final three years of his Presidency.
Peres’ ability to build bridges, even between those with competing interests, was an extension of his lifelong optimism. He used to say that both pessimists and optimists die the same way but live very differently. To be an optimist, he said, is to live a more constructive, healthy and fun life. Peres came to work every day full of energy and his optimism alone could make things happen. I learned from him that optimism is not just a way to perceive the world, but a way to impact the world.
It was apparent to Peres that the self-fulfilling prophecy is a very common phenomenon, and this is a lesson I learned myself throughout my diplomatic career. When we say that we have no partner for peace, we manifest a situation in which we indeed have no partner. And when we say that the world is against us, we behave in a way that, indeed, turns the world against us. When, on the contrary, we embrace hope and optimism good things happen.
Peres’ optimism was not to be mistaken for naivete, however. He was, in fact, the architect of some of Israel’s most advanced defense capabilities. And despite the fact that our national anthem itself (Hatikva) calls for us to be hopeful, Israelis somewhere along the way seem to have forgotten the constructive power of hope.
Peres also used to say he had a license to be optimistic – he was, after all, here when Israel was little more than a barren land with no natural resources, out-gunned, out-manned and surrounded by enemies. But we nonetheless turned the desert and the swamps into a blossoming garden and developed into one of the most vital economies in the world. These accomplishments are mind-blowing when you think about where we were just 70 years ago.
The same is true when it comes to peace. For years, many said that we would never make peace with our neighbors. But we recently marked 40 years of peace with Egypt and 25 years of peace with Jordan – both our former nemeses with whom we have fought multiple wars. So how is it that we continue to be so pessimistic as a country when the story of Israel is so optimistic?
Until his last day, Peres was completely certain that we could, we should and we would one day achieve peace with the Palestinians, and I share that belief.
Look to the Future, Not to the Past
In 2014, Peres ended his seven-year tenure as the 9th President of Israel, capping off more than 70 years of state service. It was at that point that I, too, decided to leave civil service and continue working alongside Peres to implement his vision of peace and innovation outside the government.
I joined a great group of talented colleagues who had all also worked alongside Peres in various capacities over the course of his long career – almost all of them intelligent, ambitious women – along with other creative, determined and like-minded leaders at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. It was our opportunity to help Peres implement his grand vision for a prosperous Israel in a peaceful region.
Peres was often asked what he considered his greatest achievement and his answer was always the same: “My greatest achievement is what I am going to achieve tomorrow.” Even at more than 90 years of age, Peres was always young at heart.
“The way to determine if you are young or old is not by counting how many years you’ve lived, but by counting your achievements and comparing them with your dreams. If you have more dreams than achievements,” he said, “then you are still young, because you are still looking forwards and not backwards.”
Because he focused on the future, Peres was skeptical of so-called experts who would tell him that something couldn’t be done based on their knowledge of the past. In his view, change was not a linear concept that could be used to extrapolate future predictions – it was an exponential force beyond human understanding. Those who tried to extrapolate from the past, he believed, were basing their predictions on anachronistic paradigms.
I learned this insight time and time again in my own experiences. I look back on my days attempting to analyze the impact the 2010-2012 Arab Spring would have on Israel for the Foreign Ministry’s policy planning unit and understand in retrospect that the experts who predicted that the movement would change nothing in the Arab world were completely wrong because their estimations were based on the past. They claimed that Egypt has always had a Pharaoh, and that its modern Pharaoh Mubarak would survive the Tahrir Square demonstrations. They were wrong – and we understand now the role that the Arab Spring played in changing the face of the Middle East.
I look back on my own predictions on the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Elections, and how I repeatedly claimed that Trump would not be elected, and I see that my fault was basing my analysis on past trends. I made my predictions according to everything I knew about the demographic changes taking place in America at the time, especially in the swing states, but I was completely wrong. I didn’t consider the changes in the American psyche – the backlash to the long liberal trajectory in American politics and the antagonism towards globalization that threatened peoples’ identities.
From those experiences I learned that Peres was right – a leader today must be more of a learner than a knower. In this rapidly changing world, we need to be flexible both intellectually and operationally in order to understand the future. Curiosity will serve us far more than reliance on experience or knowledge will.
Conclusions – “Think Big”
Peres always said that if we would dream more and remember less, the world would be a better place. In his last book No Room for Small Dreams, Peres describes how Israel’s most significant achievements – for example, peace with Egypt and Jordan, or a blooming desert that is the heart of agricultural production – at one time seemed like impossible fantasies, but were realized with creativity, imagination and determination.
Peres’ mantra to “Dream Big” embodies Israel’s innovative spirit and is the guiding principle of the Peres Center, which is today the cornerstone of the intersecting worlds of peace and innovation.
But Peres’ philosophy is still sorely needed in today’s political landscape. Israel needs a leader like him now more than ever – a leader with the great combination of a critical mind and hopeful heart. A leader with deep roots and wide wings.
WIF Alum Nadav Tamir (Class 15) is currently serving as Senior Adviser for Government and International Affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. He can be reached here.