A cartoon by Israeli Amos Biderman making the rounds last week showed Shimon Peres climbing the steps to heaven. Waiting to greet him, wearing robes, wings and haloes, are three former prime ministers: Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, who is puffing on a cigarette and in front with arms outstretched, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and Peres’ mentor. “We thought you weren’t coming,” he says.
For a long time, Peres, who died at age 93 on Sept. 28, two weeks after suffering a stroke, seemed as much a permanent fixture in Israel as the Knesset and falafel.
Biderman’s cartoon showed Peres being welcomed into the prime minister’s club. It’s a group that also includes Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; Ariel Sharon, who broke away from Likud; and early leaders of Peres’ Labor Party — Levi Eshkol and Moshe Sharett.
Although he spent nearly 40 years in politics, Peres was not a particularly popular politician or successful party leader. He didn’t win a single election that would have made him prime minister. But he served as prime minister twice — first, when an election stalemate led to him rotating the office with Shamir, during which time Peres proved to be a popular leader. His second stint followed the assassination of Rabin. But, in the elections that followed, Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.
While perhaps not a popular candidate in elections, Peres found his niche in the rarified sphere of diplomacy. And, as a diplomat, he helped secure a vulnerable Israel crucial weapons in its early years and helped build its nuclear program. But his most public diplomacy helped usher in a new era of peacemaking with the Oslo Accords, which enabled Israel to leverage the fostering of its security in unconventional ways. That the Oslo Accords have not led to the hoped-for peace does not diminish the legacy of Peres as Israel’s elder statesman: He was until the very end an important link between Israel’s ideological past and its pragmatic present, and he helped shepherd the Jewish state through some of its most turbulent times.
Although Israel has had several prime ministers, Peres was the only one who was also elected president. In that largely ceremonial position, he used the wisdom, relationships and prestige he had accumulated over a lifetime to project to the world an aspect of Israel that was sober, confident and hopeful. It was in that role where he finally won respect at home, long after becoming a prominent citizen of the world.
We will remember Shimon Peres as a leader with strong connections with Israel’s past, and the public embodiment of its aspirations. May his memory be for a blessing.