Death of Shimon Peres, symbol of Israels resilience, marks end of era

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With the death of Shimon Peres, the former defense hawk turned Nobel Peace Prize winner and the last of Israel’s founders, the end of an era has come in Israel.

Peres died in his sleep on Sept. 28 at 93. The former president suffered a massive stroke earlier this month and was reported initially to be in stable but critical condition. His condition deteriorated dramatically on Sept. 27. Israel Radio quoted his family, who were at his side, as saying he was “fighting until the end.”

His funeral was scheduled for Sept. 30, with many heads of state and world leaders expected to attend, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, former President Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande.

Israeli President Shimon Peres during an interview in Jerusalem in 2013 photo/jta-getty images-lior mizrahi

The phoenix of Israeli politics, Peres continually reinvented himself as the country changed. He began his career in the Defense Ministry and was the architect of Israel’s nuclear program, but in his later years was more closely identified with the quest for peace with the Palestinians. He was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo Accord, the landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and was present on the White House lawn for its signing in 1993.

Though he served as prime minister twice without ever winning an election outright, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that has yet to materialize, Peres emerged late in life as Israel’s beloved elder statesmen and a rare figure capable of uniting a fractious society.

Following the signing of the Oslo Accord, Peres emerged as Israel’s global ambassador for peace, predicting the emergence of a “new Middle East” in which conflict was supplanted by shared prosperity. Elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2007, talk of peace pervaded nearly every speech he gave. Well into his 90s, Peres still insisted he would live to see the day when peace would come.

Peace, however, doomed his political career. After middling political success in the 1980s, the Oslo Accord debilitated Peres’ Labor Party, which fell from power in 2001 with the outbreak of the second intifada and has yet to win another election. When Peres won the presidency in 2007, he was a member of Kadima, a short-lived centrist party.

As president, Peres rose again, this time as Israel’s wise old man. Free to rise above the political fray, Peres trumpeted Israel’s technological achievements and articulated its hopes for a brighter future. More than anything, he became a symbol of the country’s resilience — able to survive, thrive and remain optimistic — no matter the challenges.

“Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “He set his gaze on the future. He did so much to protect our people. He worked to his last days for peace and a better future for all. As Israel’s President, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved him for it.”

Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland, in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Tel Aviv in 1934. At 20, he became the head of a Labor Zionist youth group, through which he met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister. In 1945, Peres married Sonya Gelman, who had just returned from World War II service in the British Army.

The couple was married for 67 years, though they separated after Peres became a presidential candidate; Sonya Peres, who died in 2011, had long refused to play the part of political wife.

In 1947, Peres joined Haganah, the pre-state paramilitary organization that would form the core of Israel’s military, managing arms purchases and personnel. After Israel gained independence the following year, he continued working in the Defense Ministry, becoming its youngest-ever director-general in 1952 at 29. In that capacity he expanded Israeli arms purchases from France and later helped manage the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He also founded Israel’s arms production industry and led efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s ruling labor Mapai party, becoming deputy defense minister. He would serve in the Knesset for an unmatched total of 48 years and became defense minister in 1974 under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres was a territorial hawk, opposing early proposals for West Bank withdrawal and supporting settlement expansion. When Rabin resigned amid scandal in 1977, Peres briefly became acting prime minister, then lost the post in the election three months later.

Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, then foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from 1986 to 1988. In 1987, Peres conducted secret negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank as part of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. But Shamir rejected the proposed agreement, and the following year Jordan unilaterally relinquished its claim to the West Bank.

Under Rabin, Peres was the architect of the Oslo Accord, which gave the Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival,” Peres said upon accepting the prize. “A Middle East without wars, without enemies, without ballistic missiles, without nuclear warheads.”

After Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Peres became acting prime minister, but lost the post again in a close race with Netanyahu. Following his defeat in 1996, he founded the Peres Center for Peace, which runs programs aimed at regional reconciliation.

Peres remained in the Labor Party through 2005, twice regaining the chairmanship and serving another stint as foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The next year he won a race for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency. As president, Peres stayed largely above the political fray, though he conducted secret negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011, culminating in a peace deal that Netanyahu’s government rejected.

Peres frequently traveled internationally as president, focusing his speeches and activism on encouraging Middle East peace and touting Israel’s technological achievements. In 2012, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. Peres finished his presidential term in 2014.

He is survived by three children, Tsvia Walden, Yoni Peres and Chemi Peres, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever,” Obama said in a statement. “Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves — to the very end of our time on Earth, and in the legacy that we leave to others.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter