Shimon Peres: Last surviving member of Israel’s founding generation

Former president, prime minister and foreign minister won Nobel Peace Prize

Shimon Peres, who served two terms as Prime Minister and one as President of Israel, dies aged 93. Video: Ruptly

 

Ever since the state of Israel was created in 1948, Shimon Peres, who has died aged 93, was at or near the centre of action. A protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Peres became premier himself on three occasions, foreign minister for another three, and state president from 2007 until 2014.

He fashioned alliances with France in the 1950s, and planted the seeds for Israel’s embryonic electronics and aircraft industries. During the 60s, he honed the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and secretly amassed Israel’s nuclear weapons.

For 15 long years after it fell from power in 1977, Peres led the Labour party. In the early 80s, he resuscitated Israel’s economy, and in 1994 shared the Nobel prize for his role in the efforts to create peace in the Middle East through the Oslo accords. In the same year, he cemented Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan.

Defeated at the polls in 1996, he returned in 2001 as foreign minister, thereby giving Israel’s controversial new premier, Ariel Sharon, a much-needed veneer of respectability. And in 2006, he left Labour, his home for five decades, to help Sharon set up his powerful new breakaway faction, Kadima.

Phenomenon

Jerusalem Report

And yet, despite all his talent, there was something tragic about the man. Peres contested five elections without winning a single outright victory. His longest tenure as premier was two years, and came while he was in an awkward alliance with his Likud enemies. He lost the Labour leadership on the eve of the party’s return to power in 1992. A slew of terrorist attacks in early 1996 allowed Binyamin Netanyahu victory over Peres in Israel’s first direct prime ministerial elections.

All the same, Peres campaigned well into his 80s. No sooner had the media written him off as a “serial loser“ than he would pop up again as a saviour in a time of crisis. He was used to playing the long game. In 2007 Katsav resigned in disgrace amid charges of sexual improprieties, and Peres was elected president in his stead. Virtually across the board, Israeli editorials spoke of a national sigh of relief in recognition of a long-maligned yet irreplaceable figure.

Son of Yitzhak and Sarah Persky (he later Hebraised the family surname), he was born in Vishneva, then a largely Jewish town located in the borderlands between modern Belarus, Poland and Lithuania. His New York-born cousin Betty Perske, one year his junior, went on to achieve fame as the actor Lauren Bacall.

At the age of 10, Shimon left to settle in Tel Aviv, where his father, a lumber merchant, had emigrated two years earlier. At 15 Peres joined the Ben Shemen agricultural youth village, a crucible of future Israeli leaders. He soon met the Ukrainian-born Sonia Gelman and wooed her by moonlight with readings from Marx’s Das Kapital. The couple married in 1945 after Sonia had served as a nurse and driver with the British army in Egypt.

Peres became leader of the Hano’ar Ha’oved (Working Youth) Zionist movement when he was 19, and founded Kibbutz Alumot in the Jordan Valley. Apprised of his skills, Ben-Gurion appointed Peres head of mobilisation for the Haganah underground in 1947. He procured plane parts from the US, Italy and Czechoslovakia during the 1948 war. He became secretary of Israel’s navy.

By 1953, aged 29, he was director of the entire defence ministry, an office he held until 1959. Peres helped plan the Sinai campaign of 1956. In 1957, he successfully lobbied the French government for a nuclear reactor, and established a hi-tech intelligence unit, Lakam, whose operatives served him in future clandestine ventures.

Israel later promised that it would not introduce atomic weapons into the region – “at my urging“, wrote Peres. Though he conceded that Arab leaders saw his creation, Israel’s secret Dimona plant in the Negev Desert, as “a worrisome fuzzy deterrent”, Peres the politician enjoyed creating such deliberate ambiguities.

In 1959, Peres was elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for the ruling Mapai party (forerunner of Labour) and immediately became deputy defence minister. He bought Israel’s first US weapons, but resigned in 1965 with the prime minister, Ben-Gurion.

Israel gained the Palestinian-populated territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war – an acquisition that was to change its politics more profoundly than was realised at the time. In 1969, Peres was charged with developing these areas, and absorbing new eastern European immigrants. He then served in turn as communications, transport and information minister. When, in 1974, the prime minister, Golda Meir, was forced to resign, Peres gamely stood for election to the vacant post of party leader, but lost narrowly to an equally youthful, native-born military hero, Rabin.

Sinai treaty

LebanonEntebbe

Yet support haemorrhaged for a government blighted by scandal and economic malaise. Rabin resigned in April 1977 and Peres was prime minister for barely a month before Menachem Begin’s Likud demolished Labour at the polls.

Peres thus won the dubious privilege of becoming Labour‘s first-ever opposition leader. He then saw Begin negotiate the historic peace agreement with Egypt that he had expected to make himself.

Likud’s ill-fated Lebanese war of 1982 allowed Peres to tap into national unease. He fought the 1984 elections to a dead heat, and duly headed a national unity government, agreeing that he would hand power to Likud’s pugnacious new leader, Yitzhak Shamir, after two years.

As prime minister, Peres made up for lost time. He withdrew troops from Beirut to a narrow “security zone” in southern Lebanon. Then he slashed Israel’s inflation rate by forcing the Histadrut labour confederation and big business into a national compact. When Shamir became prime minister, Peres served as foreign minister (1986-88), during which time the iconoclastic pragmatist and security hawk, who once called settlements “the roots and eyes of Israel”, blossomed into a peace campaigner.

He had first met King Hussein in 1974. Their mutual respect was clear from the outset. Peres felt that a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation could break the stalemate in the territories, and bring peace to Israel, and in 1987 negotiated with the king in London. Shamir, angry that Peres had “gone behind his back”, quashed the deal. The acrimony between them deepened, and probably exacerbated Palestinian frustration. For his part Hussein blamed Peres for leaking their secret talks.

Israel’s 1988 election took place against the backdrop of the Palestinian intifada (the uprising against Israel in the occupied territories). It ended in deadlock, and led to another unsatisfactory “unity government”.

Peres rejected Shamir‘s endorsement of settlements and, in 1990, sought to topple the government. At the last moment, the religious Shas party withdrew the support it had promised him. In early 1992, Rabin replaced Peres as party leader, and went on to win the June elections for Labour.

Miraculously, their enmity turned to partnership, with Peres, the foreign minister, as the engine and Rabin, the prime minister, as the gears and brakes (or so Peres later described it). A longtime foe of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Peres now persuaded Rabin to consider talks with the PLO leader Yasser Arafat

Imperfect peace

For two years, Peres worked furiously to keep the imperfect peace on track. He negotiated directly with Arafat, turned the “Gaza and Jericho First” proposals agreed at the White House into reality, drafted the 1994 Paris Protocol of Israeli-Palestinian economic relations, promoted regional summits and in 1995 sealed Oslo II (an agreement to restore Palestinian rule to six major West Bank towns).

But Israeli fury at persistent terrorism prompted demonstrations against the Rabin-Peres administration. In 1995, Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin at a peace rally. Peres, Amir’s other intended target, was just metres away. He took over as prime minister on a wave of sympathy. With hindsight, Peres’s decision not to call immediate elections was an error. Nonetheless, he achieved much in his six months in charge: he implemented Oslo II ahead of schedule, assuaged the religious right, bolstered the economy and co-operated with Arafat over the first-ever Palestinian elections.

Support for Peres evaporated when successive bomb attacks killed dozens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and talks with Syria came to naught. Peres’s retaliatory invasion of Lebanon in April 1996 also misfired, when more than 100 refugees perished in one Israeli bombing. The electorate narrowly yet decisively favoured Netanyahu that May.

After Labour’s victory in 1999, Barak gave Peres the nebulous portfolio of “regional co-operation minister”, but sidetracked him over the peace process. Peres had meanwhile founded a centre for peace in his name, with headquarters in Ajami, a largely Arab neighbourhood of Jaffa. It is dedicated to dialogue, cultural, economic and youth initiatives, and healthcare assistance to Palestinians.

Where other Israeli politicians grudgingly accepted a Palestinian state as inevitable, only Peres argued in Le Monde that it was necessary for Israel‘s future. When the new intifada broke out in 2000, polls backed Peres to restore the peace process. In the event, Barak sabotaged his rival’s “virtual candidacy”, only to lose at the polls himself. Peres emerged as foreign minister under Sharon in a Likud-Labour coalition government. This time Peres was the liberal brake to Sharon’s determinedly rightwing engine. Whether he was an effective brake was another story.

In 2005, he left Labour to co-found Kadima with Sharon, barely a month after losing the Labour leadership to an outside candidate, Amir Peretz. Peres served as Ehud Olmert’s deputy premier after Kadima convincingly won elections in 2006. The following year, by now Israel’s longest serving parliamentarian, he left the Knesset to contest the presidency.

As Israel’s ninth president, he helped restore his nation‘s battered reputation. He became the first Israeli head of state to address a Muslim state legislature when he spoke to Turkey’s national assembly in November 2007.

In 2008, he launched the Israeli Presidential Conference, an annual brainstorming forum which attracted guests including George W Bush, Elie Wiesel, Robert De Niro, Rupert Murdoch and Bernard-Henri Levy. In 2009, Peres served as “national host” for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel. At last he gained the affection of Oriental Jews – half of Israel’s population – who had once seen him as an Ashkenazi elitist.

Diplomat

Nonetheless, Peres still engendered controversy. In his inaugural presidential speech he bluntly stated that Israel had to “get rid of the territories”. He averred that he had changed his position, not his beliefs. Although many hailed him as a man of vision and peace, Israeli rightists flayed him for playing into the hands of the PLO.

After leaving the presidency in 2014, Peres continued work for his peace centre. When Israeli authorities denied the centre tax-exempt status because it trained doctors from Gaza, the centre suspended its application and continued with its programme, which by 2015 had helped 250 personnel. As late as November 2015, his health now failing, he insisted that Israel faced “eternal war“ if there was no Palestinian state.

Peres was an intriguingly contradictory figure: a romantic in a cynical age, an Israeli icon with a Polish accent and francophone sensibility, who carried about him the taint (deserved or otherwise) of political chicanery.

He is survived by Sonia, their daughter, Zvia, sons, Yonathan and Nehemia, and six grandchildren.