Shimon Peres witnessed Israel’s history - and shaped it
The evolution of the former Israeli president from political operator to statesman did not come easily
At every corner of Israel’s tumultuous history, Shimon Peres was there.
He was a young aide to the nation’s founding fathers when the country declared independence in 1948, and he played a key role in turning Israel into a military power. He was part of the negotiations that sealed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, garnering a Nobel Peace Prize. He was welcomed like royalty in world capitals.
But only at the end of a political career stretching more than 60 years did Peres get what he truly wanted: admiration from his own people. He died at 93 early Wednesday, his son, Chemi, confirmed at the hospital where Shimon Peres had been treated for the past two weeks after suffering a stroke.
Peres began a new chapter at age 83, assuming the nation’s presidency following a scandal that forced his predecessor to step down. The job cemented Peres’ transformation from down-and-dirty political operator to elder statesman.
“After such a long career, let me just say something: My appetite to manage is over. My inclination to dream and to envisage is greater,” Peres said in an interview on July 15, 2007, moments before he was sworn in as president.
He said he would not allow his age, or the constraints of a largely ceremonial office, to slow him down. “I’m not in a hurry to pass away,” Peres said. “The day will come that I shall not forget to pass away. But until then, I’m not going to waste my life.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement mourning the passing of Peres. He said he would convene his Cabinet for a special session later on Wednesday.
Former US President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said they had “lost a true and treasured friend” with the death of Peres. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also issued statements of mourning, as did former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
As president, Peres tirelessly jetted around the world to represent his country at conferences, ceremonies and international gatherings.
Watch: ‘Peres goes job hunting’, a parody video starring Shimon Peres to mark his retirement from the Israeli presidency in 2014
He was a fixture at the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where he was treated like a rock star as the world’s rich and powerful listened breathlessly to his every word on topics ranging from Mideast peace to nanotechnology to the wonders of the human brain.
He also became Israel’s moderate face at a time when the nation was led by hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres sought to reassure the international community that Israel seeks peace, despite concerns over continued settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and the paralysis of negotiations under Netanyahu. Still, while Peres never tired of speaking of peace, he tended to avoid strident criticism of Netanyahu.
It was his 1994 Nobel Prize that established Peres’ man-of-peace image. He proudly displayed the prize — which he shared with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — on the desk of his presidential office.
As foreign minister, Peres secretly brokered the historic Oslo interim peace accords with the Palestinians, signed at the White House on September 13, 1993.
Accepting the award, he told assembled dignitaries that “war, as a method of conducting human affairs, is in its death throes, and the time has come to bury it.”
Despite the assassination of Rabin, the breakdown of peace talks, a second Palestinian uprising in 2000, wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and Netanyahu’s continued re-elections, Peres maintained his insistence that peace was right around the corner.
“I’m sure I shall see peace in my lifetime. Even if I should have to extend my life for a year or two, I won’t hesitate,” he said in a 2013 interview marking his 90th birthday.
Peres was born Shimon Perski on August 2, 1923 in Vishniev, then part of Poland and now in Belarus. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his family, where he changed his surname to Peres, or songbird, in Hebrew. Relatives who remained in Poland, including his grandfather, a prominent rabbi, were killed when Nazis set a synagogue on fire during the Holocaust. Peres often spoke lovingly of his grandfather in speeches. The actress Lauren Bacall was a cousin.
Still in his 20s, Peres rose quickly through the ranks of Israel’s pre-state leadership, and served as a top aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, after independence in 1948. Peres once called Ben-Gurion “the greatest Jew of our time.”
At 29, he served as director of Israel’s Defense Ministry, and is credited with arming Israel’s military almost from scratch. He later worked with the French to develop Israel’s nuclear programme, which today is widely believed to include a large arsenal of bombs.
Still, he suffered throughout his political career from the fact that he never wore an army uniform or fought in a war.
Peres was elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1959, serving in nearly all major Cabinet posts over his long career. As finance minister, he imposed an emergency plan to halt triple-digit inflation in the 1980s. He also was an early supporter of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, a position he would later abandon.
But he had trouble breaking into the prime minister’s post, the top job in Israeli politics. He was hampered by a reputation among the public and fellow politicians as both a utopian dreamer and a political schemer.
He ran for prime minister in five general elections, losing four and tying one, in 1984, when he shared the job in a rotation with his rival Yitzhak Shamir.
His well-tailored, neck-tied appearance, swept-back gray hair and penchant for artists and intellectuals seemed to separate him from his more informal countrymen. He never lost his Polish accent, making him a target for mimicry.
One of the lowest points of his political career came in 1990, when he led his Labor Party out of a unity government with Shamir’s hardline Likud on the strength of promises from small factions to support his bid to replace Shamir.
At the last minute, several members of Parliament changed their minds, approving a Shamir government without Peres and Labor. The incident became known in Israeli political lore as Peres’ “stinking manoeuvre.” Rabin scorned him as a “relentless meddler” and in 1992 replaced him as party leader.
The two eventually repaired their relationship and worked together on pursuing peace with the Palestinians.
After Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish ultranationalist opposed to Israel’s peace moves, Peres became acting prime minister.
But he failed to capitalise on the widespread sympathy for the fallen leader and lost a razor-thin election the following year to Netanyahu.
In one famous incident, an angry Peres rhetorically asked a gathering of his Labor Party whether he was a “loser”. Resounding calls of “yes” rained down on him.
Peres would later blame a wave of suicide bombings for his defeat. He described his visit to the scene of a deadly bus explosion in Jerusalem, where people started screaming “killer” and “murderer” at him. “I knew that I lost the election,” he said.
He suffered another humiliation in 2000 when he ran for the presidency, a largely ceremonial position elected by Parliament. Peres believed he had wrapped up the election, but the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party broke a promise to him and switched its support to Likud candidate Moshe Katsav. Peres was a loser once again.
Even so, he refused to quit. In 2001, he took the post of foreign minister in a unity government led by his rival Ariel Sharon, serving for 20 months before Labor withdrew from the coalition. In Peres’ final political defeat, Labor overthrew him as party leader in 2005, choosing instead the little-known Amir Peretz.
Peres subsequently followed Sharon into a new party, Kadima, serving as vice-premier and maintaining that post under Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert.
He was able to attain the presidency when Katsav was forced to step down weeks before his term ended to face rape charges. Katsav was later convicted and sent to prison.
Seeking to stabilize the cherished institution, parliament turned to Peres and elected him president.
Peres cultivated an image as a grandfatherly figure, frequently inviting groups of children and teens to the presidential residence. He embraced social media and promoted Israel’s high-tech industry in meetings with top officials at Google, Facebook and other major companies.
Peres also launched his “President’s Conference,” which became an annual high-powered gathering in Jerusalem of artists, thinkers and business leaders from around the world.
Derided by critics as extravagant and unnecessary, the gathering drew some of the world’s most powerful personalities. The 2013 conference also became a 90th birthday party, with figures such as Bill Clinton, Barbara Streisand and Robert DeNiro in attendance.
He also exhibited a humorous side. When he left the presidency in 2014, he appeared in a video his granddaughter produced where he jokingly tried out new jobs including a supermarket cashier, gas station attendant and standup comedian — peppering his comments with puns and visionary slogans.
Asked about his secret to longevity, Peres said he never dwelled on the past.
“What happened until now is over, unchangeable. I’m not going to spend time on it. So I am really living in the future,” he said. “I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better.”
Peres’ wife Sonya died in 2011. He leaves a daughter, Tsvia Valdan, a university professor, and two sons, Nehemia, a leading Israeli venture capitalist, and Yonatan, a veterinarian.
Peres represented “the essence of Israel itself,” US President Barack Obama said.
“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” he said. “A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever.”