Avi Gil, The Peres Formula: From the Diary of a Confidant. Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 368 pp. (Hebrew).
The Peres Formula, or How to Sell the Brand
Many books and thousands of articles and reports have been written about the late Shimon Peres, and he himself published his memories and impressions during a long career that was always entwined with Israeli history.
The book by Avi Gil is different from the others because of the author’s style and because his inner thoughts are full of contradictions. Throughout the book he admires and dotes on his hero, and he says he is grateful that it was his fate to work with a “rare leader and wonderful man.” And yet, deliberately or not, he also belittles the man and portrays him as a conniving politician, a wheeler-dealer, not as the great and esteemed leader who was lauded at his funeral less than two years ago.
Avi Gil is apparently perplexed over Peres’s complicated behavior and claims that he had high regard for the thankless mission that Peres took upon himself. But in the same breath he disparages several politicians and members of the public sector, and, in particular, justifies in hindsight the trickery that was performed to achieve the objective and get the credit at any price, saying that this is the nature of politics in Israel and one has to live with it. Yet Gil is a civil servant who is supposed to uphold certain rules of the public service. For that matter, how can it be that today the rights to a book of this kind are reserved exclusively to the civil servant? Are transcripts of official conversations and documents of the Foreign Ministry private property, and do they not belong—as part of the agreement with the publisher—to the state archive?
It is likewise amazing that throughout this book with all its assertions, Shimon Peres and his close circle evince no qualms either about mistakes that were made in pursuing the goal or with regard to the goal itself. With them everything is fully kosher.
Style and Editing
Avi Gil and all who helped him with the writing and editing have given us an interesting and even fascinating book that is written in the first person by a confidant. This is indeed a personal diary that documents, as the publisher explains on the book cover, “the good and the bad, the sublime and the ridiculous, the important and the amusing…this is a rare opportunity to understand how a leader works, how the chef thinks, how the chef works, how the ingredients are mixed….” Let us add with regret, however, that Avi Gil has in fact cooked up something of a mess. The ordering is not chronological, sometimes there are repetitions of conclusions and impressions, and the ten big chapters are actually a succession of short stories and saucy, sardonic anecdotes that sometimes are hard to follow. It is also difficult to know, while reading, what role Avi Gil really plays in the book. The media adviser? The strategic adviser, the life coach? An interviewing journalist? The leaker? The poet? The diplomat? The confidant? The faithful friend? The psychologist? The censor? The man lurking in the shadows? The biographer or the man lugging the equipment? Or all of these at once? All in all, a testy official and jack-of-all-trades who helped navigate the state into a new territory.
To the book’s credit, the writing is fluent and concise with touches of healthy but very cynical humor. Any reasonably intelligent person can read it quickly and learn about the events, while also wondering whether the things written after the death of the “hero” are indeed accurate or products of the author’s imagination.
The book also leaves an uncomfortable feeling that the credibility of what it says is questionable. This is especially so if one has closely followed the historical events and knows that there were other actors in the political and diplomatic arena, and that different versions of the events exist that appear to be much more credible.
In addition, the back of the book lacks appendixes, and the notes and quotations there should have been provided as endnotes on each relevant page for ease of reading. The book also includes several letters, pictures, even “poems” with rhymes, as well as rhyming prose scattered among its 378 pages, as well as an interesting interview with Peres that the author conducted.
There is no doubt that the diaries of confidants are valuable and should be published. At the same time, when the author writes only from an individual standpoint, the diaries will help little in understanding the historical background and its influence on the events.
As noted, the book does not constitute authorized historical documentation, and Gil even admits that he selected episodes according to his own considerations. He also acknowledges that he had only a partial perspective on the events. Indeed the book centers on the diary that he kept over the years. He chose to focus more on personal aspects, on Peres’s internecine struggles with Rabin, Shamir, and Netanyahu. On page 27 Gil writes proudly that, at the time of the “stinking maneuver”:1 “Amid the efforts to undermine the government I worked to weaken Shamir’s status, while stoking tensions within the Likud…. I would also leak scary stories about the PLO’s infiltration of the diplomatic process, stories that were from the realm of fantasy….” And indeed similar stories and numerous intrigues appear in the book that are not worthy of serious consideration, such as the unnecessary and even damaging example of Peres’s remarks about non-Jewish women during an intimate conversation on a flight. Likewise, during a visit to Israel by President Clinton, Gil insists on preventing him from addressing the Knesset at any price. On page 77 he states outright: “Why should I give Netanyahu a stage?” Or, on page 87, he writes: “The temptation to plant lies and half-truths in the media is great. It happened when there were prominent reports about an intention to appoint television commentator Ehud Yaari as the ambassador in Cairo. In my responses I stood behind the reports.” That Gil recounts this is unbelievable.
Undoubtedly, with Gil’s help, the description of Peres as a “tireless conniver” and “loser” that pursued him over the years is confirmed. We also learn that Yitzhak Rabin did not always give Peres a green light for his moves, among other things regarding the Oslo agreements, and that Peres interpreted Rabin’s mild hesitancy or wait-and-see attitude as a signal of consent; we learn this already in the first lines of the book.
The author has indeed punctured the brand known as “Shimon Peres” in Israeli and worldwide public opinion, and it is recommended that this book not be translated, at least not in its original form, into other languages. There is still a huge discrepancy between Peres’s image in the world and his image in Israel. Moreover, the author blatantly and shamelessly violates all the norms now existing in diplomacy and the public sector. He makes readers feel disgust toward civil servants, those “freeloaders,” those “nobodies” who “only understand cocktails,” and he makes a contribution to the contempt that is directed at diplomacy and the Foreign Ministry. It is even more disturbing when Gil writes on page 41: “Not only in the hasbara field did the Foreign Ministry disappoint Peres. He found it lacking in professionalism, creativity, political depth, and operativity. He managed without it even on the key issues, and used it mainly as a source of logistical support while behaving as if he were detached from his ministry.” The question is, why didn’t Avi Gil resign? And why didn’t Shimon Peres, together with him, dismantle the ministry and establish a different body? Isn’t there a ringing slap here to thousands of loyal and dedicated diplomats who, since the establishment of the state, have taken part in defending it in international institutions and have represented it honorably? What would Abba Eban, the father of Israeli diplomacy, have said about this? Is this really the legacy of Shimon Peres? Is this really what we will teach political science students who want to be tomorrow’s ambassadors?
With the supposed aim of telling the unvarnished truth, Avi Gil thinks everything is permissible for him and there are no red lines. Without compunction he assumes the role of the psychologist who understands a frustrated soul, who reads thoughts and sees what is hidden. Gil indeed explains to us that Shimon Peres was not just an upstart but, rather, a frustrated individual, a secondary actor in our political arena with big dreams and grandiose projects.
The chapters also tread a slippery slope toward tasteless rubbish and cheap gossip, leading from the public to the personal. Sometimes the tinsel is more important than the truth. The good of the country is likewise sidelined in favor of personal achievements and interests. Isn’t it also strange that the peace institute named after Shimon Peres was established in Jaffa in 1998, almost two decades before the leader’s death?
In order to “sell” a book and gain the esteem of certain journalists, should the author descend to such a low, gossipy level? Unfortunately, he is not the only one who does so. Recently we are witness to a phenomenon of throwing out every moral restraint, sometimes with the help of surreptitious recordings. When only the dark side of a leader is spotlighted and his productive work is minimized, proportion is lost. Every rumor is amplified, inflaming passions. Standards of confidentiality and proper disclosure vanish, even if the person is on his deathbed. Medical secrets, like state secrets, are revealed daily without inhibition. The prattle on the radio, the television, and the websites burgeons. Every government bureaucrat or public personality from the IDF, Mossad, or Shin Bet says whatever he wants the moment he reaches retirement and old age. It is certainly appropriate to publish memoirs and biographies, but it is something else to chase after publicity at all costs. Now everyone, with his own style and personality, tries to prove that it was he who was at the right place and the right time. In an obstinate struggle for admiration and credit, each purports to have been the “only one” present at all the historical junctures. Have they all forgotten that we are still in a fight for our existence? That most of the publications and revelations are a weapon and an asset in the hands of the enemy? That they are an insult to behavior that is loyal to the country and ludicrous in the eyes of world leaders? Isn’t the chase after credit and fame at any price a dangerous game that will have a boomerang effect?
Directly or indirectly, this book has morally compromised all who have done their work devotedly. Avi Gil indeed sweetens the pill by claiming he is presenting the perspective of Shimon Peres, and he indeed obtained his consent in advance to publish the book. After Peres’s death, however, Gil seems to have become a kind of “state’s witness” who opens all the Pandora’s boxes in his possession. Is this not a breach of the framework in which he worked? What has happened to ethics? Isn’t there a blatant and outrageous violation here of the principle of privacy? Doesn’t Gil subvert the role of a civil servant and his loyalty to his superiors—by interfering in political and party affairs, by leaking and publishing false, manipulative, and tendentious items to satisfy his desire and please his superior? In the course of writing the book, did Gil really believe that the state was a private endeavor of Shimon Peres and his advisers? Does the overriding interest and sole objective consist of promoting the projects or plans of one person with big dreams? Does Gil believe that a small circle of young, ambitious advisers can change the world? These same “blazer wearers” were able to set agendas in the same way that Shimon Peres did in the Ben-Gurion era. Yet it should be recalled that not even the nuclear reactor in Dimona and the aerospace industry were the exclusive fruit of one person’s work. True, Shimon Peres was the bulldozer, but there were many others who were modest about their contribution and did not go public to insist on the credit.
Peres, Beilin, Savir, Gil, and other officials believed they had an exclusive monopoly on leading the state of Israel to great attainments in all fields. The intoxication of power, megalomania, and skyscraping egos made them think they were above all the authority of the state, above the government and the Knesset, and they did not even fear the Supreme Court. They did not trouble themselves with orderly, diligent work or with the opinions of others; they pushed their agenda without fear that it could fail and everything come to naught. Nor were wasteful expenditures, including countless unnecessary trips all over the world on the taxpayer’s tab, of concern to them.
Amid this intolerable lawlessness, it seems more and more that Shimon Peres is portrayed as a mere tool, a mouthpiece by means of which the clique could reach their delusive goals. At the same time, it is strange to see how Avi Gil “proves” that he and Shimon Peres worked together as good friends, at the same level and with the same status. The confusion of roles is certainly disturbing.
The question must be asked: Is this the role of a civil servant? Isn’t there a shocking recklessness here? Is a person who behaves in this manner fit to serve in a responsible role alongside a leader, and later to become director-general of a government ministry?
Unfortunately, the book does not contain documentation of any diplomatic activity worthy of the name, let alone a brilliant, laudable diplomatic move that had positive outcomes on the ground. Instead it was all one big shady deal, and the advisers’ great concern was how Shimon Peres would look every step of the way and whether his image would be harmed. This is well evident on page 80 when Peres is hospitalized in Afula. Medical accessories have to be concealed from the photographers, as if we live in a communist or totalitarian country with a personality cult and Peres is indeed immortal….
In an effort to justify the narrative of peace with the Palestinians, the author sets forth his personal outlook on page 24 and states: “It was not ‘love for Arabs’ that shaped my political positions.” He was shocked when he saw the abuse of prisoners in Megiddo Prison while, at the same time, the Foreign Ministry was boasting in the world media about the humane treatment that they received. On page 25 Gil reaches the conclusion: “These severe incidents illustrated for me how much the occupation indeed corrupts…. I was more and more persuaded by Peres’s approach, and I wanted more and more to help him.”
The battle for credit that is waged among the actors focuses not only on the Oslo agreements but also on the peace treaty with Jordan. A picture emerges, however, in which Peres and his circle, exuberant about peace with the Arabs, lack knowledge of the mentality and subtleties of Arab society. All the conversations with them evince an arrogance that, in retrospect, Avi Gil regrets. As he notes on page 104: “Peres sometimes emitted statements that did not flatter his Arab dialogue partners, and implied that even a peace-lover like him was still influenced by prejudices…. They hated Peres for his supercilious style….” This lack of understanding was also evident in the regional economic conference held in Casablanca, and of course in Peres’s view of the “Arab Spring” as heralding a new Middle East….
It is very strange to see several senior journalists praising the book and warmly recommending it while making no criticism of a blatant breach of the clear rules that pertain to government-media relations and to the publication of mendacious material.
In sum, there is no doubt that Shimon Peres was one of Israel’s great statesmen and contributed greatly to the country’s security. It is very disheartening that Avi Gil has published a book that focuses more on the negative side of a leader who has passed away. Certainly the book is worth reading and pondering if the aim is to prevent future blunders and misunderstandings of the political map of our region. At the same time, one hopes that the lesson has been learned: in the future, every senior civil servant must restrain himself and not be tempted to lead the political and diplomatic establishment astray, ignore the existing restrictions, and cross the red lines.
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1 A parliamentary maneuver by Peres that Rabin denounced as repugnant.