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Note on Shimon Peres: from domination to hegemony and back again

The outpouring of grief following his departure represents global recognition of the cover provided by Peres.

Ran Greenstein
3 October 2016
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Former US President Bill Clinton walks from the stage past the casket of former Israeli President Shimon Peres at the memorial service at Mount Herzl national cemetery, Jerusalem, Sept. 30, 2016. Carolyn Kaster/Press Association. All rights reserved. From a historical and analytical perspective, it may not be very useful to engage the question of whether Shimon Peres was a ‘man of peace’ or a ‘war criminal’, or both. The first term ignores the context of his policies (all of which were aimed at maintaining overall Israeli control), and the second term positions him merely as one in a long line of Israeli leaders using brutal military force. Neither term capture what Peres represented historically, and why he stood out, especially in the later stages of his long career. Let us think of the late Peres (from the early-1990s onwards) as operating in a new mode of control.

To understand that, let us think of the late Peres (from the early-1990s onwards) as operating in a new mode of control, seeking a transition from a strategy of domination to a strategy of hegemony. What does this mean? Domination is the maintenance of control through the use of force, or the threat of such use. Hegemony is an attempt to maintain control through generating consent. How do rulers gain the consent of the governed? Not by repression, manipulation or brain-washing only or primarily, but through making some concessions (partly symbolic, partly material), co-opting elites, incorporating popular elements into the structure of power in a subordinate position.

For consent to become a real possibility, it must include willingness on the part of rulers to go some way towards meeting the concerns of those over whom they exercise control.

Historically, the move from direct colonial domination to neo-colonial rule in the aftermath of the Second World War represented such a transition. So did the formation of the European welfare state. Later on in South Africa, the demise of political apartheid, which has gone along largely with the retention of social or class apartheid, can be seen as a move in that direction. 

Using this analytical framework, the Oslo process can be seen as a quest for a hegemonic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It allowed Israel to retain overall supremacy but made limited though real symbolic and material concessions to the Palestinian national cause. Initially, it left several options open – that is, it was not doomed to failure from the start even if that was the eventual outcome – but those options closed off fairly quickly with the rise of Hamas, the assassination of Rabin and an Israeli mental retreat into the security ‘laager’: a return to the military domination paradigm which uses force as the primary, perhaps the preferred, mechanism of control. A hegemonic solution … initially left several options open – that is, it was not doomed to failure from the start.

Why did that happen? Two factors, reinforcing one another, can provide an explanation: 

(1)  The concessions required for a hegemonic solution proved too much for the messianic religious-nationalist Israeli right wing, a minority that was strong enough to block further progress, and

(2)  The concessions offered by Israel proved too little for radical Palestinian nationalists, also a minority that was strong enough to block or at least delay further progress.

This combination created a deadlocked situation, which needed to be broken if the process was to move forward. A decisive move against settlers and their supporters in the aftermath of the Goldstein massacre in Hebron early in 1994, or after Rabin's assassination late in 1995, could have shifted that balance. But both Rabin (in 1994) and Peres (in 1995-96) recoiled from taking such a step. Thus, they destroyed the chances of a hegemonic outcome and laid the ground for a return to domination. Why did they fail to proceed differently?

Faced with the choice between the prospect of a certain and irrevocable rift within Israeli society if they moved against settlers, and uncertain historical re-alignment with the mainstream Palestinian forces as the potential reward, they fell back onto the safe and familiar ground of resort to the use of force.

Although they did retain the discourse of reconciliation, peace and compromise, it was emptied of substantive content. Continued negotiations while settlements remained in place and settlers remained armed, funded and protected (legally and militarily) by the state, was a clear indication that Israeli leadership was not ready to do what was necessary to break the deadlock. Internal Jewish unity was seen as more important than reaching agreement with the Palestinian leadership. Internal Jewish unity was seen as more important than reaching agreement with the Palestinian leadership.

If that was the case when Peres was still in power, the prospect of hegemony became even more remote during the subsequent reign of Netanyahu. Ehud Barak during his brief interlude in power (1999-2001), fell prey to the same dynamics that deterred Rabin and Peres: unwillingness to make decisive moves that might have jeopardised internal Jewish unity. Whatever concessions he was willing to make were never enough to satisfy the minimum demands of the Palestinian national movement. When he was replaced by Sharon, even that limited prospect of a hegemonic solution was laid to rest.

The Peres project continued through his relentless personal efforts, but it was running on empty, going nowhere and increasingly serving only as a fig leaf for ongoing and even reinforced Israeli domination. Paradoxically, the more celebrated Peres became and the more support his vision gained overseas, the less influential it became within the Israeli-Jewish public. The outpouring of grief following his departure, represents global recognition that without the cover provided by Peres (and a few intellectuals operating in a similar vein, like Amos Oz), all we are left with is unmasked Israeli domination, with little chance of being overturned from within.

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Shimon Peres, 28 January 2001. Wikicommons/World Economic Summit. Some rights reserved.

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