Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s most eminent politicians and the last of the state’s founding generation to wield power, died early on Wednesday, September 28, in Tel Aviv, two weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 93.
When he ended his presidency in 2014, Peres was the world’s oldest head of state, and the only person to have served as both Israel’s prime minister and its president. Although his long and illustrious career was full of internal rivalries and professional disappointments — including a leadership ploy that entered the history books as “the stinking maneuver” — in his later decades Peres became known as Israel’s elder statesman, admired by leaders across the globe and more widely respected at home than at any point in his turbulent political career.
Peres, who never won a popular election — his accession to the presidency in 2007 was a result of a secret ballot among Knesset members — was one of Israel’s most successful, shrewd, divisive, and ultimately beloved politicians. A man of many stripes — a lifelong Labor leader who defected to the free market center of the Kadima party; a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who, according to foreign sources, gave a scarred and threatened state the ultimate deterrent weapon; and a signatory to the Oslo Accords who years earlier, as defense minister, helped lay the foundations of the settlement movement — he was considered by many to be one of Israel’s strongest assets, an erudite politician unblemished by corruption.
On the international stage he was respected for his conciliatory positions and his unending quest for peace; on Israel’s ideological right, for years, his name was synonymous with naiveté and far worse.
“The Palestinians are our closest neighbors,” he said often. “I am sure they can become our closest friends.”
Peres was the country’s eighth prime minister, serving from September 1984 until October 1986, and again from November 1995 to June 1996 in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of his greatest rival-turned-ally Yitzhak Rabin. In 2007, he became Israel’s ninth president.
Peres served in the Knesset for nearly half a century, from 1959 until 2007, holding virtually all senior ministerial positions over the years. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his Labor party colleague, then-prime minister Rabin.
Born in 1923 as Shimon Perski, Peres grew up in the Polish city of Wołożyn (today Valozhyn, Belarus), which was decimated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Peres often recalled his grandfather Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, who once took him to the Chofetz Chaim, one of the giants of pre-war Jewry, to receive a blessing.
Peres was raised by his grandfather, who saw him off when he left for Palestine at age 11. “I remember the last words and the order that I heard from his mouth: ‘My boy, always remain a Jew!’” Peres recalled once. The Nazis later locked Peres’s grandfather in the town’s synagogue and burned him alive.
Peres went to school in Tel Aviv and Ben Shemen and later co-founded Kibbutz Alumot, where he worked as a farmer and shepherd.
In 1945, he married Sonya Gelman, who died in 2011. Two years after their wedding, Peres joined the Haganah, the militant Jewish underground organization headed by David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s founding prime minister was Peres’s political mentor and remained his role model until the end of his career. “Ben-Gurion was the greatest of all statesmen; he had a prophetic vision,” Peres said.
“In many ways,” historian and foreign policy analyst Azriel Bermant wrote about Peres in 2012, “he has certainly acted as Ben-Gurion’s successor, combining elements of far-sighted pragmatism and hawkishness throughout his career, even though Peres is often seen as an idealistic, unrealistic dove.”
But of course there were important differences between the two leaders, Bermant stressed in a review of Peres’s 2012 book on Ben-Gurion. “Peres is the consummate diplomat who has always seemed to care about both domestic and international opinion. Indeed, some might say that he is too concerned these days about the former. One wonders what Peres could have accomplished as he strove to make peace, had he displayed more of Ben-Gurion’s steel and ruthlessness toward domestic rivals.”
In recent years, Peres enjoyed the role of Israel’s elder statesman beyond petty party politics, but the early days of his career looked distinctively different.
In the Haganah, Peres was responsible for manpower and arms and later headed Israel’s navy. After the War of Independence, he became the director of the Defense Ministry’s delegation in the US. In 1953, the then 29-year-old Peres became the ministry’s youngest-ever director-general. In this position, he helped form strategic alliances that would prove crucial to Israel’s survival, and established the country’s nuclear program in Dimona.
In 1959, Peres entered the Knesset for Mapai (the Labor Party’s predecessor) and was appointed deputy defense minister, a position he held until 1965. In 1974, Rabin, who then was prime minister, made Peres his defense minister.
Three years later, Rabin got embroiled in a foreign currency scandal and had to let Peres take over as Labor head and unofficial acting prime minister. Under Peres’s leadership, Israel’s left wing lost power for the first time in the country’s history. The right-wing Likud party’s Menachem Begin became prime minister and Peres headed the opposition. In 1981, Labor lost again. Three years later, the party won the most seats but was unable to form a left-wing coalition. Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir agreed to a rotation agreement, in which the two leaders alternately served as prime minister and foreign minister. Peres became prime minister for the first time on September 13, 1986.
In 1988, Labor lost yet again to Likud’s Shamir, albeit narrowly, and Peres served as vice premier and finance minister in a national unity government. But that unlikely alliance fell apart in 1990 over disagreement about a U.S.-backed plan for peace talks with the Palestinians.
Peres then tried to grab power by staging a political ploy widely known as “the stinking maneuver.”
With the help of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Peres’s left-wing bloc successfully filed a no-confidence motion in March 1990, marking the first — and to date the only — time a sitting government was ousted by such a measure. Peres was asked to form the government but failed to do so, due to opposition from the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party. The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi at the time, Eliezer Menachem Schach, famously forbade his followers from entering a coalition with the “pork-eating” left, and so a humiliated Peres was left without a majority.
Rabin, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Peres as party chair, said that “this bluff and corruptibility which came into the Israeli political life in an attempt to form a narrow government failed not only tactically but also conceptually.”
Two years later, Peres lost the Labor leadership to Rabin, who went on to become prime minister and made Peres his foreign minister. In 1993, the Rabin government signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which won him, Peres, and PLO leader Arafat the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.”
“We are leaving behind us the era of belligerency and are striding together toward peace,” Peres said in his acceptance speech.
The bitter rivalry between Peres and Rabin lasted almost half a century. It didn’t end with the success of Oslo or another historic peace treaty Israel signed with Jordan in 1994. Indeed, Peres was upset that Rabin marginalized his role in the peace agreement with Amman, feeling that he deserved most of the credit because of his many years of holding secret contacts with Amman.
“This tension is completely unnecessary,” Labor minister Moshe Shahal said after the cabinet session that approved the peace deal with Jordan. “There is enough room for both of them in history for what they have done and the achievements they have attained.”
Israel’s diplomatic achievements at the time were ascribed to the two Labor leaders working in tandem, despite their personal enmity. “It’s a miracle that this combination exists,” Israeli writer Matti Golan, who chronicled Peres and Rabin’s relationship, opined at the time. “But there is no doubt that without Rabin (the peace initiatives) couldn’t be, and there is no doubt that without Peres it would be impossible, too.”
After Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, Peres became acting prime minister, vowing to continue on the path to peace. He called for new elections, but a series of brutal terror attacks against Israeli civilians right before the elections led the people to focus on security over reconciliation, and narrowly brought to power Likud’s hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the next Labor government, under Ehud Barak, Peres served in a minor post as regional cooperation minister. After this government collapsed in 2000, Peres ran for president but lost to Moshe Katsav. He then staged a political comeback, becoming foreign minister in a coalition government under Likud hardliner Ariel Sharon. In 2005, he followed Sharon to the newly founded centrist Kadima party, where he stayed until he resigned from the Knesset after being elected president in 2007.
As is customary for the mainly ceremonial position, President Peres abandoned partisan politics and henceforth focused his speeches on the need to achieve peace in the Middle East, the dangers of a nuclear Iran, and the miracle of Israel’s high-tech success. After a stormy career in politics, Peres was no less vigorous in his new, apolitical position, keeping up with a tight schedule that included meetings all over Israel and across the globe.
“I don’t how where he gets the energy from,” one of Peres’s staffers said a few years ago, after her boss had addressed a crowd of senior American communal leaders at 8 in the morning before heading to his next appointment. “Believe me,” she continued, “he’s over 80 and I’m in my 30s, but he has more energy than all of us.”
Indeed, even as an octogenarian, Peres — who received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama — was indefatigable. In the mid-1990s, he became the first Israeli prime minister to have a website, and two decades later he was still on the cutting edge of technology. In 2012, he released an ultra-hip video showing him shaking hands with world leaders and stars from Hollywood and the world of sports, and playing on his iPad, all the while imploring the viewer to “be my friend for peace.”
“We used to be the people of the book. Now we’ve become the people of the Facebook — much better,” Peres said in the clip. For the video’s background music Peres hired Noy Alooshe, an Israeli journalist and musician who became famous for the “Zenga Zenga” spoof making fun of Muammar Gaddafi.
Even on the very day he suffered from a stroke and was sedated and intubated by his doctors in Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer Hospital, Peres published a video clip on Facebook urging Israelis to buy home-made products.
In the summer of 2012, as Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly mulled attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities despite opposition from Washington, Peres entered the political fray one last time. Jerusalem cannot “go it alone” in a preemptive strike, he said, sparking a storm of controversy. Likud leaders called Peres’s comments “a gross attack on the elected government’s official policy” and one lawmaker went so far as to suggest Peres be impeached.
But Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president (1978-83), defended him. “A man like Shimon Peres cannot not speak his mind when he feels the fatefulness of the hour and believes with all his heart that it’s his obligation to exert influence,” Navon said.
Before the 2013 elections, some dovish Israeli politicians and pundits pressured the then 89-year-old to quit the presidency and run once again for the premiership, but Peres refused, saying he was committed to conclude his seven-year term as president. On July 27, 2014, he was succeeded by Reuven Rivlin, whom he had defeated in the presidential elections seven years earlier. But even after six decades of holding political offices, Peres did not retire, continuing tirelessly to call for peace and to defend Israel’s good name in the world.
“We do have a partner. But we have to decide — do we want a partner for peace or a partner for war? I’m speaking about Abu Mazen” — another name for the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas. “He talks about peace, he talks against terror. He doesn’t talk the Zionist language, but I don’t expect him to,” Peres said in a recent interview.
In December 2015, rumors about his death spread on social media, which Peres, true to form, dispelled on his Facebook page. “I’m continuing with my daily schedule as usual,” he wrote, “to do whatever I can to assist the State of Israel and its citizens.”
On September 13, he suffered from a stroke and was admitted to the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where doctors sedated and intubated him. Wishes for his recovery poured in from across the globe, but despite minor improvements in his condition he did not recover.
Times of Israel