Shimon Peres, Israeli founding father and ‘Soul of Israel,’ dies at 93
Shimon Peres, one the most important leaders in the history of Israel and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, passed away on Sept. 28 after a career in public service that spanned seven decades. Peres was 93.
Peres served as prime minister twice and was president from 2007 to 2014. He played an instrumental role in the development of Israel’s nuclear program and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their role in the Oslo Accords.
“Shimon Peres was the last of the mighty midwives who brought the State of Israel into being in 1948,” said Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, professor of Middle East history at Carnegie Mellon University. “A contemporary American equivalent might be George H.W. Bush, if Bush had begun his career at the knee of George Washington. Peres began his career as a young security hawk and David Ben Gurion’s protégé; by the end of his long life in public service he had transformed himself into perhaps the most ardent of Israeli peace seekers.”
He was held in high regard by many global leaders who appreciated his “political moderation and optimism” about the possibilities for Arab-Israeli peace, Eisenberg noted.
“I think Israel has lost not just a major statesman, but it’s also lost a little bit of its soul,” said Dov Zakheim, who served in the George W. Bush administration and worked closely with Peres in the 1970s.
Stuart Eizenstat, who served in three administrations and knew Peres personally, called Peres an Israeli version of Thomas Jefferson because of his importance, because of his intellect and because he was a “renaissance man.”
Eizenstat praised Peres for treading a very fine line as president — traditionally a ceremonial position — between remaining an advocate for the peace process, while not undermining the hawkish Netanyahu government.
“Later in his career, he transformed himself into the most beloved man in Israel,” Eizenstat said. “It was really a beautiful thing to see.”
Peres is sometimes seen as having evolved politically over the course of his life because of his close ties to the Israeli military during the beginning of his career and his later determination to nurture the peace process.
But Guy Ziv, a professor at the American University School of Foreign Service, said that Peres was actually an “extreme pragmatist” throughout his life and it was the circumstances around him that changed.
“Peres’ key concern was always Israel’s security, and that’s something that’s often lost,” said Ziv, whose book “Why Hawks Become Doves” documents Peres’ career.
Despite the multitude of positions he held in various governments and his two stints as prime minister, Peres suffered numerous political defeats, most notably in 1996, when his Labor Party narrowly lost to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“I say this with love, but he wasn’t a great politician,” said Eizenstat. “I think that was in many ways because he was an intellectual. As the country became more and more conservative, he was seen as more of a dreamer, which I think is wrong.”
He was significantly less popular in Israel than he was on the world stage, according to Eisenberg, where many believed that his optimism “led him to place too much trust in Arab interlocutors and undertake risky peace projects, exemplified by the Oslo Accords he signed with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, for which they both won (along with Yitzhak Rabin) Nobel Peace prizes.
“Interestingly, Israelis who lament his turn to the left rarely give him his due for his remarkable contributions to the security of the State of Israel in its early years,” Eisenberg added. “After 1945, Ben-Gurion dispatched him to Europe where he bought large quantities of surplus World War II equipment for the Haganah forces in Palestine; at only 29 years old he was the director of the Defense Ministry and the chief architect of Israel’s nuclear program, achieved with the assistance of France. He was also the defense minister when Israel undertook the heroic rescue at Entebbe.”
Peres was born as Szymon Perski in Poland in 1923, and he immigrated with his family to British Mandate Palestine in 1934. He lived in Tel Aviv and spent his later teen years on a kibbutz.
David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, took an interest in Peres after the younger man won an elected position in the Labor-Zionist youth movement. Peres soon became Ben-Gurion’s protégé, and in 1947, the year before he declared Israel’s independence, Ben-Gurion gave Peres responsibility for personnel and arms purchases of Haganah, the predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces.
In Israel’s early years, Peres, who spoke French fluently, played a pivotal role in acquiring arms for Israel from France and other European countries while there was an American arms embargo against Israel.
“He was in many ways Ben-Gurion’s extension to the outside world,” said Eizenstat. “Ben-Gurion asked Peres to acquire arms, and he did.”
Peres’ career continued its quick rise and by the age of just 29 he was appointed deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
In the 1950s, Peres worked with Britain and France to plan the Suez War against Egypt. It was also in this decade that Peres began work on Israel’s nuclear program with the French government. Ziv credited Peres’ openness and diplomatic skill in leading Israel’s scrappy nuclear program at a time when the country “could hardly afford to grow tomatoes.”
“In France, Peres would meet with anybody and everybody,” said Ziv. “He built his own fiefdom in France of key figures like politicians, key industrialists and other elites.”
Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, and he served as the head of various ministries until 1977 when, as the Labor party’s candidate for prime minister, he suffered a major electoral defeat to Menachem Begin and the Likud party.
Zakheim, who worked with Peres in the 1970s, praised him for his charisma.
“He would make his points in the most charming way possible,” he said. “He was prepared to say what he believed even if it wasn’t the most popular thing to say at the time.”
During the 1980s, Peres served as leader of the opposition, and following the 1984 elections, he was prime minister for two years as part of a rotation government established by an alliance with the Likud party. He served in various ministries in the late 1980s as part of a continued alliance with Likud.
In 1990, Peres’ Labor Party lost power after it attempted to form an alliance with small leftist and ultra-Orthodox parties.
It was in the early 1990s, now serving as foreign minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, that Peres participated in secret negotiations with Yasser Arafat of the PLO that led to the Oslo Accords.
Ziv said that Peres’ initial desire was to negotiate peace with Jordan’s King Hussein, but he eventually came to the conclusion that he had to work with Arafat. Ziv said that Peres worked with Arafat because he anticipated Hamas’ rise to power.
“His preference was the PLO over Hamas,” said Ziv. “That’s his pragmatism.”
Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Peres again became prime minister, but opted to wait before scheduling elections, a decision that has been criticized by his political supporters because of Likud’s victory in 1996.
“Peres’ decision not to call for a snap election after Rabin’s assassination profoundly changed and complicated the peace process,” said Eizenstat.
Peres declined to seek reelection as the leader of the labor party in 1997, but remained active in politics, serving as foreign minister, deputy prime minister and vice prime minister.
Then, in 2007, Peres became president of Israel, a position he held until 2014. Peres is widely credited for using the traditionally ceremonial position in a proactive way, while not interfering with Netanyahu’s agenda.
Because of this, Peres became popular in Israel as an elder statesman. Zakheim also said that Peres’ popularity grew at the time in the United States.
“He was very popular in Washington, because anyone who had a vision of peace in the Middle East immediately looked to him,” Zakheim said. “His serious support for the two-state solution was really very important because as some of the leadership in the American Jewish community moved to the right, he stood his ground.”
Eizenstat recalled that during Peres’ time as president, he would host Shabbat dinners every year at the Davos World Economic Forum with dignitaries and businesspeople. The gathering started with “barely a minyan” but ended up with 250 people by 2014. Eizenstat saw these dinners as an example of Peres’ warmth and leadership.
After receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012, Peres retired from politics in 2014.
In his last years he continued his work on the Peres Center for Peace, an organization he established in 1996 to enhance intercultural understanding in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In fact, just hours before being hospitalized for his stroke on Sept. 13, Peres recorded a video for Facebook urging people to buy local products.
Peres is survived by his three children, Yoni Peres, Nehemia Peres and Dr. Tsvia Walden.
“I have been blessed to have been in audiences to hear Shimon Peres multiple times in my career and I have even had the chance to shake his hand several times,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “As I look at my Facebook feed, dozens of my friends have posted pictures taken of them with Peres. He valued every personal relationship he had. He was a deep thinker and philosopher, a gentleman and a gentle man. Our lives have been enriched by his leadership.”
George Altshuler writes for Mid-Atlantic Media. Toby Tabachnick contributed to this article.