IN DEFENSE OF POLITICS
By Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres is the former foreign minister and former
prime minister of Israel who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his
efforts, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, to bring peace to
the Middle East.
TEL AVIV -- Fundamentally, politics is about finding a way for people
to live together despite their inherent differences. Necessarily, then,
the principal purpose of politics is to serve freedom. Just as it is impossible
for men and women to survive without bread, it is impossible for them
to subsist without freedom. Metaphorically speaking, a politician is a
baker of freedom.
There is a chasm between military strategy and civil politics. The goal
of military strategy is victory. It aims at attaining quick and comprehensive
results, uncompromisingly, even at the cost of human lives. True, in many
cases strategy aims at avoiding war. Yet when war breaks out, the strategy
is single-minded. It doesnt seek an alternative to victory.
Democratic countries authorize the military to act as the only legitimate
undemocratic organization to defend democracy itself. When at war, the
people are asked to pull together behind the army. The media bow to censorship,
whether self-imposed or imposed by the state. Soldiers are the object
of unchallenged respect. And the collective hate for the enemy boosts
national morale. And when victory is at the door, people cheer, despite
its painful price.
The drawback of strategy is that victory does not necessarily bring peace.
And without peace, there is no assurance that war wont erupt again.
Politics, by contrast, has to deal with situations from three different
perspectives: prior to a war, to try to prevent it; in the wake of a war,
to bring peace; and always to create a unifying vision of the future,
thus bridging a divided public.
Politics cannot rely exclusively on a single constituency as military
strategy can. It has to cope with partisan interests and a wide range
of opinions. Its not a one-time operation, but a process of ongoing
negotiations. Its victories are not real successes; its achievements are
perceived as transient.
Politics does not unite the people. In most cases it reflects their differences.
It assumes a mantle of compromise -- always a cause of criticism -- not
an uncompromising stand that leaves no room for question. A politician
who chooses the road of compromise is perceived as compromising himself
because most people do not look kindly on compromises. They prefer victories.
Yet in truth, politics without compromise is nonexistent. The alternative
is the dismissal of other peoples ideas and the destruction of the
The drawback of politics is that it may be harder to achieve results around
a negotiating table than in the battlefield. In the battlefield, the philosophy
is one of You will be vanquished and I shall live.
In negotiations, it is live and let live.
Politics thus always finds itself caught between a rock and a hard spot,
between the need to make compromises and the surge of opposition against
Compromise gives politics a bad name. It seems as though it is a show
of weakness and feebleness, even though the aim of politics is survival,
to prevent wars or end a conflict.
The aim of politics is not only to safeguard the lives of people but also
to protect human values. But when dealing with moral values, compromises
are out of the question because they might well undermine the foundations
of civilization itself. To compromise with people is a compromise with
another person. To compromise with values is to compromise the principles
upon which your life and society have been built.
Therefore, politics does not only seek to bridge hostility, it also assumes
responsibility for building a society of moral values. Thus, it constitutes
an essential tool and serves as a moral architecture as well. It is a
What propelled me into politics? I was 14 years old when I joined the
Working Youth movement. What influenced me to join this particular movement
was that it was distinctly more Israeli: the uniform -- simple (a blue
shirt with red shirt laces); the attitude -- modest (always us
and not me); it was comprised of working youths
from all walks of life (especially from deprived sectors); its vision
was clear: the establishment of kibbutzim all across the country.
I sat around campfires in the evening and took part in seminars during
the day. Gradually, I discovered that this movement wasnt as monolithic
as I initially believed. It was divided on basic principles. Most of its
leaders and instructors were for the wholeness
of Eretz Israel and opposed to partition. This was contrary to David Ben-Gurions
stand and that of his friends, who were in favor of a Jewish
and independent state immediately, even at the cost of a partition.
He thought it was better to compromise on the territory than compromise
on the values of a Jewish state.
The movement was also divided by two schools of thought -- whether to
follow the tenets of tomorrows world of
Marxist-Leninism and even communism or to oppose an ideology that concealed
doctrines with seeds of dictatorship and tyranny. Ben-Gurion referred
to Stalin as Cham Georgian and wasnt prepared
to compromise by accepting Communist precepts or Bolshevik practices.
Another element, stirring and less dramatic, also created a divide in
the movement: It was Ben-Gurions stance that our ideology stemmed
from the Bible rather than from foreign manifestoes. In his eyes, the
forefathers of socialism were the Prophets Isaiah in the political, and
Amos in the social, domains. He had no liking for the foreign words: communism,
socialism, colonialism. Instead, he preferred to talk about cooperation,
solidarity, settlements for, and by, the workers.
At the time, I didnt know Ben-Gurion personally. But I was impressed
by his intellectual integrity and farsightedness. I joined his ideological
road. Then, I was surprised to discover that instead of being a partner,
I had become a minority. And when the Working
Youth movement elected a secretariat, I realized that I was the only Ben-Gurionist
among its 12 members. It was clear I would have no influence on any decisions
passed by the secretariat. And that was when I learned that losing is
not the same as quitting.
Thus, while the others took part in secretariat meetings, I studied the
field, going from place to place, approaching person after person. And
to the great amazement of the movement, four years of hard work later,
the majority became mine -- an accomplishment that made a deep impression
on the Labor Partys leadership. And from that time on (I was just
21), their expectations of me were considerable, even exaggerated.
I returned to my kibbutz, Kibbutz Alumot in lower Galilee, and to being
a shepherd. Within a short time, Ben-Gurion asked my kibbutz permission
to recruit me to the headquarters of the Haganah national command, an
as yet illegal organization.
I answered his call because I felt I must face God, man and the era in
which I lived honestly, without blinking. The feeling then, among young
and old, was that in the aftermath of the Holocaust we were now poised
on the threshold of a pivotal historic milestone, the creation of a Jewish
state, that was about to face the onslaught of a military strike by armies
many times the size of its own.
Entering political life, I pondered the difference between wooing public
opinion versus being a doer, which would mean
endless controversy. For to do is to change. To change is to annoy. Doing
means creating something that did not exist beforehand, and thus is always
met with skepticism and doubt.
I recall a heated argument between Ben-Gurion and one of his associates
on the division of work between them. Ben-Gurion proposed a compromise:
His associate would be responsible for what already existed and Ben-Gurion
would be responsible for what did not yet exist.
I came to the conclusion that the more interesting aspect of politics
was to explore new frontiers, rather than be bogged down by the old. And
from that moment on, throughout my political career, I was always in the
eye of the storm. Opinions swung from criticism of my efforts that seemed
in the eyes of many over-optimistic, too daring and practically unfeasible
to a large measure of respect when the tangible results became visible.
Yes, I lost some elections and was stung by criticism. But there was also
high esteem when risks were rewarded.
I have no regrets on this score. I learned that the essence of politics
was three-pronged: Avoid stirring up troubled waters so that people dont
hurt one another; cater to the nonexistent future, despite the fact that
its benefits might only be enjoyed by still unborn voters; and attempt
to persuade the public that your road is right and the vision significant,
despite the occasional tactical setbacks on the way.
On no account must politics breed despair. It must cope with despair.
It must have the capacity of giving meaning to life and hope to the young.
This is why I like the English proverb that says: A winner
does not quit, and a quitter does not win. In the end, man
triumphs, not his weaknesses.
(c) 2003, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 2/11/02)
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