Israel lost its most honored senior statesman, the last active member of its founding generation, with the death today of Shimon Peres, the former ceremonial state president and ex-prime minister.
Peres, who was 93, was rushed to Tel Hashomer Hospital September 13 after suffering a stroke and died the morning of Wednesday September 28, two weeks later. He had suffered a light heart attack last January.
In a career in public service that spanned more than six decades, Peres held seemingly every senior post in Israeli politics. An early hard-liner on Palestinian relations who later became both the prime advocate for the Oslo peace process and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he was admired internationally as his country’s premier spokesman, an intimate of intellectuals and celebrities as well as world leaders.
For all his accomplishments, however, Peres never won the acclaim at home that he enjoyed on the world stage. A bookish intellectual in a country that valued toughness and military prowess, he led his Labor Party in five national elections between 1977 and 1996 and failed to win a single one. He lost four outright; the fifth, in 1984, resulted in a dead heat between him and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir, forcing them to share the top slot in an awkward “rotation.”
Born Shimon Perski in Poland in 1923, Peres was descended on his mother’s side from distinguished Orthodox rabbis, including his grandfather, who taught him Talmud and influenced him to adopt a strict Orthodoxy despite his parents’ secular lifestyle. He was also a first cousin of Betty Joan Perske, later known as Lauren Bacall.
Moving with his parents to British-ruled Palestine at age 11, he joined the socialist youth movement Noar Oved Velomed (Working and Studying Youth), gradually abandoning his youthful Orthodoxy. He was elected national secretary of the youth movement at age 18, his first national political position. Two years later he married Sonya Gelman, an enigmatic figure who abhorred public life and politics (and, some said, her husband’s leftist views and secularism). She kept out of public view throughout their nearly seven decades of marriage. She died in 2011. They had three children.
A rising star under the mentorship of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Peres was manpower chief of the pre-independence Haganah militia at age 23, responsible for arms procurement during the 1948 war of independence. But in 1950, Peres, feeling he needed wider experience, took off for a brief vacation in the United States. There, he learned English in three months and took advanced courses in philosophy and economics at New York City’s New School for Social Research, at New York University and at Harvard.
At 29, Peres was appointed by Ben-Gurion to be director-general of the Defense Ministry. Elected to the Knesset in 1959, Peres rose steadily through a variety of ministerial posts, including information, defense, finance and foreign minister and three stints as prime minister. He served as a member of the Knesset continuously for 48 years, except for one three-month period; it was the longest Knesset tenure in Israeli history, ending only in 2007, when he assumed the presidency.
PERES AND RABIN
Peres led the drive beginning in the early 1950s to create a homegrown Israeli arms industry. In 1956 he negotiated the purchase from France of Israel’s first nuclear reactor, and oversaw the reactor’s secret construction in the Negev town of Dimona. As prime minister in 1984, he managed the recovery of the battered Israeli economy, following three years of ruinous hyperinflation. Later, he spearheaded the negotiation of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1994 he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for his role in crafting the peace accords.
Much of Peres’s public career was spent locked in a bitter personal rivalry with Rabin, his Labor Party colleague, who was one year his senior. They battled for party leadership three times, in 1974, 1981 and 1992. Peres lost twice. Party leaders often said that Peres made a better prime minister, but Rabin was the more electable candidate. Where Rabin was a dashingly handsome, native-born Israeli war hero, Peres was an immigrant who never fully lost his Polish accent and, despite his defense contributions, never served in uniform. Rabin was an earthy, blunt-spoken chain smoker, while Peres was an intellectual who circulated in European salons and spoke in high-flown, often poetic language that evoked mockery as often as it did admiration.
Peres’s intellectual journey was as dramatic as his political career, and nearly as convoluted. Though known worldwide as a leading peace advocate in his later years, Peres was first known as a fierce advocate of Ben-Gurion’s hawkish defense views and political centrism. Committed to placing state interests ahead of divisive ideology, Ben-Gurion and Peres opposed the social activism of the labor movement’s mainstream. In 1965, together with another Ben-Gurion loyalist, war hero Moshe Dayan, Peres followed his mentor out of the dominant Mapai labor party and formed a centrist breakaway, Rafi.
It was a short-lived faction; Rafi reunited with the Labor Party after the 1967 Six Day War. But Peres and Dayan were cool toward the postwar government’s offer to trade the newly captured territories for a peace treaty. They argued instead for what they called a functional compromise, in which Israel would retain permanent control over the captured land while Jordan, the previous sovereign, would exercise political control over the inhabitants. Rabin, by contrast, was dismissive of the defense value of the West Bank.
When Rabin was named prime minister in 1974, replacing Golda Meir — who was forced to resign in disgrace, because of her failure to respond to signs of Arab preparation to attack Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — the ex-general told the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot in an interview that he “wouldn’t care if I need a visa to visit Bethlehem.”
Peres, who had become Rabin’s defense minister and the leading patron of the nascent settler movement, pointed in the opposite direction when he told the Knesset in March 1976, following a spurt of violent Palestinian protests in the West Bank, that the government’s “principle” remained, as it had been since 1967, “creating a pattern of relations with the inhabitants of the occupied areas.”
FROM HAWK TO DOVE
During the 1980s, in response to changes on the Arab front, Peres underwent a dramatic transformation from hawk to dove. By 1984 he was Israel’s leading advocate of a land-for-peace compromise. He surrounded himself with a group of talented young protégés including Yossi Beilin and Avraham Burg, mockingly dubbed “Peres’s poodles” by their foes.
In April 1987, shortly after handing the prime minister’s office to Yitzhak Shamir and taking over as foreign minister, Peres flew to London for a round of secret meetings with King Hussein of Jordan. Their talks produced the London Agreement, under which an international peace conference would meet to draft a regional peace agreement. Jordan was to represent the Palestinians at the conference, with the unstated assumption that the West Bank would revert to Jordanian rule.
When Peres returned to Jerusalem, however, Shamir flatly rejected the plan. The following December, the first Palestinian intifada broke out, elevating for the first time a young, militant, locally born Palestinian leadership that swore allegiance to the PLO. Eight months later, in August 1988, King Hussein publicly renounced any further claim to the West Bank. Three months after that, in November 1988, the PLO’s governing body met in Algiers and endorsed the 1947 United Nations resolution partitioning the Holy Land into Jewish and Arab states, meaning — as PLO chief Arafat said in Geneva weeks later — recognition of Israel.
PERES AND SHAMIR
That same November, Peres and Shamir faced off again in an election that was seen widely as a referendum on territorial compromise. The result was another dead heat. In the negotiating scramble that followed, Shamir convinced several Orthodox parties to join him in a right-wing government in return for a promise of legislation solidifying Orthodox rabbinic control over Jewish immigration. Under intense pressure from American Jews, however, Shamir was forced three weeks later to abandon the deal and turn again to Peres.
Two years later, Peres tried to offer the Orthodox parties the same deal that Shamir had offered them — control over immigration in return for coalition backing — in secret negotiations that Rabin, the defense minister, called a “stinking maneuver.” Peres’s offer was vetoed by senior rabbis, and Labor went into opposition. The next two years saw growing tension between the hard-line Shamir government and the administration of George H.W. Bush in Washington.
As the 1992 elections approached, the Labor Party held its first-ever open primary for party leadership. Rabin defeated Peres, and went on to win the general election in May 1992. Peres assumed the foreign ministry in Rabin’s new government. Shortly afterward, he launched secret talks with the PLO without Rabin’s knowledge, leading to what became known as the Oslo Accords.
PERES AND ARAFAT
The accords established limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza under a new Palestinian Authority, led by Arafat. Israel and the P.A. pledged to cooperate to maintain security and to begin negotiating a permanent relationship no later than 1996. The accords were signed with a handshake by Rabin and Arafat in a September 1993 White House ceremony that was televised worldwide. The following year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the two leaders and to Peres, in recognition of his role. But for reasons still hotly debated, the accords failed to achieve a permanent peace and its provisions were largely frozen or discarded in 2000 with the beginning of the second intifada.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Peres concisely articulated his universalist, future-oriented vision — and in so doing, may have unwittingly itemized the very ideas that grated on many Israelis’ nerves.
“Countries used to divide the world into their friends and foes,” he said. “No longer. The foes now are universal: poverty, famine, religious radicalization, desertification, drugs, proliferation of nuclear weapons, ecological devastation. They threaten all nations, just as science and information are the potential friends of all nations.”
He continued with the view of international relations that made the world celebrate his leadership, and Israelis mistrust it: “Classical diplomacy and strategy were aimed at identifying enemies and confronting them. Now they have to identify dangers, global or local, and tackle them before they become disasters.”
Though the Oslo agreement was celebrated internationally as a major breakthrough, it was bitterly attacked at home by the opposition, Likud, and by the settler leadership, as treasonous and suicidal. At the same time, Palestinian opponents of the agreement, led by Hamas, staged a series of deadly suicide bombings in 1994 and 1995, killing dozens of Israeli civilians and further inflaming Israel’s political divide. In November 1995, a pro-settler graduate student assassinated Rabin, and Peres became prime minister again.
Peres took over at a delicate moment. In the aftermath of the assassination, the right was moderating its attacks on the government. An election was due in May, Israel’s first-ever direct vote for prime minister. Peres led in early polls by a 20-point margin over the Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the territories were creating tension, exploiting Israel’s uncertainty. In January 1996, Peres ordered the assassination of the region’s most wanted terrorist, Hamas master bomb maker Yahya Ayyash.
Hamas responded with a series of four spectacular bus bombings in the space of two weeks in February and March, killing 59 Israelis and wounding hundreds more. In April, following several minor exchanges of fire along the Lebanese border, Israel launched a massive 16-day air and artillery operation, known as Operation Grapes of Wrath, against Hezbollah. One errant Israeli shell hit a United Nations camp and killed 118 Lebanese civilians seeking shelter there.
Some critics said Peres had launched the operation in order to project toughness and win over angry voters. If so, it backfired. Israel’s Arab citizens, angered over the Lebanese operation, stayed away from the polls in massive numbers. Despite his early lead and the lingering sympathy for Labor because of the Rabin assassination, Peres lost to Netanyahu on May 29 by a narrow 29,000 votes, one-half of 1%. The following year, Peres stepped down as Labor Party leader and was replaced by Ehud Barak.
Out of leadership for the first time in years, Peres sought to create a new, somewhat symbolic position for himself as ceremonial president of the Labor Party. Barak refused.
Instead, when Barak defeated Netanyahu and became prime minister in 1999, he created a new, powerless position for Peres as minister of regional cooperation. Peres was further humiliated when he was kept on the sidelines, despite his international standing as a peacemaker, as Barak entered intensive peace talks.
In the summer of 2000, Peres decided to seek still higher office by succeeding Ezer Weizman as Israel’s figurehead president. The post required approval not of the voters, Peres’s perennial stumbling block, but of the 120 members of the Knesset. He was defeated anyway, losing to a second-tier Likud figure, former tourism minister Moshe Katzav.
Barak’s coalition collapsed in the wake of the failed Camp David talks in 2000, forcing an early election, which he lost to Ariel Sharon of Likud. Peres now led the Labor Party into the Likud government and became foreign minister, despite objections from party doves to serving under Sharon.
SHARON’S FOREIGN MINISTER
Peres insisted that his old friend Sharon could seize opportunities for peace when they appeared, and that Labor’s presence in the government could help ensure this. He made no pretense about his own views. He outraged Sharon’s Likud allies in November 2001 when he told the United NationS General Assembly that in Israel, “there is support for a Palestinian independence, support for a Palestinian state,” even though it was not yet government policy.
In 2003, after two years of harsh security measures backed by Peres but opposed by party doves, Labor quit once more in order to face the Likud in a new election. The new party candidate for prime minister was a popular ex-general, former Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna. But Labor lost worse than ever.
After Mitzna’s defeat, Peres became party leader yet again. In January 2005 he led Labor back into the Sharon government, which was now moving toward disengagement from Gaza with enthusiastic backing from Labor. In November 2005, three months after the disengagement, Peres lost another party primary, this time to trade union leader Amir Peretz. Days later, Peres announced that he was leaving Labor to join Sharon’s new Kadima party, formed when Likud refused to back disengagement. Peres now entered the Cabinet as vice premier and minister for Negev and Galilee development, another title cobbled together for him.
In July 2007, after Katzav was forced to resign from the presidency because of a sex scandal, Peres was finally elected president of Israel, albeit on a second ballot.
The presidency allowed Peres to assume gracefully the role he had been struggling to adopt for two decades as Israel’s elder statesman and an international voice of conscience. Despite his age, he traveled incessantly around Israel and around the world, advocating his favorite topics of peace, the arts and high-tech development. He walked the walk along with talking the talk: In 2012, after meeting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Peres launched his own Facebook page.
“Today I invite people from all around the world, from Europe, U.S.A, India, Latin America, Asia, Africa and specifically Iran, Lybia, Syria, and Egypt, to join me and promote peace between the people,” he declared on his page. “Facebook empowers us. So let’s dare to believe, start to change our world, and create a better tomorrow.”
Peres also oversaw a dance music video mash-up, “Be My Friend for Peace,” that combined phrases on this theme from his various speeches with video footage, set to disco music.
In April 2013 Peres announced that he would not seek to extend his tenure beyond 2014. His successor, Reuven Rivlin, took office on 24 July 2014.
In the time remaining to him Peres maintained his engagement in public life mainly through his activities on behalf of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv and played the role for Israel of elder international statesman. In June 2013, while he was still president, the center sponsored a huge, celebrity-studded 90th birthday party for him in Jerusalem that included former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and actor Robert De Niro. Barbra Streisand offered him a birthday serenade of her signature hit song, “People,” followed by a warm hug.
Peres wrote his own epitaph when he summed up his legacy in his presidential inaugural speech to the Knesset:
“My years place me at an observation point from which the scene of our life as a reviving nation is seen, spread out in all its glory. It is true that in the picture[,] stains also appear. It is true that we have gone astray and have erred — but please believe me, there is no room for melancholy. The outstanding achievements of Israel in its 60 years, together with the courage, wisdom and creativity of our young generation, give birth to one clear conclusion: Israel has the strength to reach great prosperity and to become an exemplary state as commanded us by our prophets.
“Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer of his people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state. And also, if sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today, the day seems suddenly gray, the president whom you have chosen will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding — because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come.”
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).