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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.

-- 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 doesn’t 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 won’t 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. It’s 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 people’s ideas and the destruction of the opponent.

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.

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 spiritual aspiration.

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 wasn’t 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-Gurion’s 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 ‘‘tomorrow’s 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 wasn’t 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-Gurion’s 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 didn’t 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 Party’s 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 don’t 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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