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Shimon Peres: A beacon of light

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


Alonso Quijano, dignified and gentle, was a haggard, rustic gentleman who lived in the region called La Mancha. His mental faculties were so damaged from his obsession with tales of chivalry that he fancied himself anointed to correct the wrongs of the entire known world. Alonso changed his name to Don Quixote de la Mancha and traveled the land battling windmills he mistook for wicked giants.

We know the rest of Don Quixote's story.

Now, meet a modern Don Quixote de la Mancha: He is Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. He even looks like Alonso Quijano -- gaunt, sharp-featured, gray-haired and a bit wild-eyed.

Like his 17th century counterpart, the 78-year-old Peres is fighting windmills. And like Alonso, too, Peres is the butt of laughter and ridicule from all quarters, including leftist members of his own Labor Party, which he once led as the Jewish state's prime minister.

Peres' windmills are the disparate forces on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hardliners hell-bent on continuing the recent round of bloodletting that has claimed hundreds of lives, mainly Palestinians.

Most notably, Peres is fighting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who single-handedly sparked the 16-month intifada when he marched onto the Temple Mount with a contingent of security forces.

Peres' predicament is ironic because, as the New York Times' James Bennet points out, during 55 years in service to his nation, he has held every senior Israeli office. Additionally, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, founded the nation's aircraft industry and "made Israel a reputed nuclear power."

Today, many detractors consider him a clown -- albeit a feisty, principled one -- riding a sway-backed nag across desert sand, among the region's lunar-like hills.

He is broadly derided for his wisdom.

He is a beacon of light in a place that has grown dark, a place that has lost its moral bearing, a place whose leaders apparently would rather be right than compromise for the sake of security.

He is wise enough to hang onto to hopes of making peace with Yasser Arafat and his people. For his stance, Peres is dismissed as a "dangerous dreamer."

To his critics who argue that he is a fool, he says: "The future always hangs on a minority, and the past hangs on a majority. Whoever has a new idea is a priori suspected for it. I am not impressed."

Indeed, he is not impressed by his enemies on either side. They have no plan, no alternative to the carnage that threatens to last another generation. Peres has a peace proposal, the makings of a plan for Israel and the Palestinians that can put the two camps on a path to saving themselves from themselves.

While Sharon was busy doing his John Wayne kill-them-and-take-no-prisoners act, Peres was quietly negotiating a plan with Abu Ala, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament.

From what I can tell, the plan has several problems that will keep the two sides apart. Permanent borders for a new Palestinian state, for example, have not been established. Most Jews will not agree to giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority as its capital. Most Palestinian refugees will not be permitted to return to land where they resided before 1967.

But Peres, striking at windmills, believes that his mere advocacy for peace will help bring Israelis back to the reality that military action and reaction have failed to make them safe. He wants to force his critics to stop merely opposing peace with rhetoric and develop concrete proposals that can bring the Palestinians back to the table.

He wants Israelis to realize that Sharon's campaign promise of "peace with security" has failed and that the region teeters on disaster.

"You cannot stop fire just by fire," he told the New York Times. "You need political water as well."

The truth is that Peres is a smart politician with a clear vision. He knows that emotion, old hatreds, desire for revenge and fear can make the best peace effort impossible.

He, therefore, wants to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians before the next Israeli elections in October 2003. "Otherwise," he said, "the election will be about personality, and the subject will be who can bring an end to terror quicker. And for that reason, everybody will say: shoot more, act more, I-don't-know-what-to-do more. And it leads to nowhere."

Shortly before his death, a bested Don Quixote surrendered to disillusionment and gave up his mission redress the wrongs of the world. The giants -- the windmills -- won. I wager, though, that Peres, who's being treated like Miguel de Cervantes' little hero, will persevere. He will go to his grave fighting for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

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