Former Israeli president Shimon Peres dies aged 93

Tributes to Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was architect of Israel’s nuclear programme

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

 

Shimon Peres, who served as Israel’s prime minister and president and won the Nobel peace prize in 1994 for his part in clinching the Oslo peace agreement with the Palestinians, has died in a Tel Aviv hospital, two weeks after suffering a stroke.

Mr Peres (93) was the last surviving member of Israel’s founding fathers and helped shape the country’s destiny at almost every key juncture in the years since independence in 1948.

He was born in Poland in 1923 and immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1934.

Peres served as a trusted aide to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, who remained the greatest influence on his life.

Ben Gurion tasked the talented and ambitious young Mr Peres with a top-secret mission of critical importance for the fledgling state surrounded by hostile Arab neighbours: make Israel a nuclear power.

With French assistance, Israel constructed a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert and by the mid-1960s, according to foreign intelligence reports, had produced its first nuclear bomb. Only in recent years was Shimon Peres publicly acknowledged as the architect of Israel’s nuclear programme.

After serving two terms as prime minister, Mr Peres became the only former prime minister to be elected president and he completed his seven-year stint as Israel’s ninth president in 2014.

Mr Peres went to the grave as Israel’s unchallenged elder statesman and the most respected Israeli figure in the international community.

Although he spent nearly his entire political life on the left, it was during his stint as defence minister in the Labour government of Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1970s that Mr Peres played a key role in helping the emerging Jewish settler movement defy the government and establish communities in the West Bank, which Israel had occupied in the 1967 Six-Day war.

The hero of the Jewish settlers in the 1970s went on to become their villain two decades later when, as foreign minister in a government again headed by Mr Rabin, he initiated secret contacts between Israeli academics and Palestinian officials in the Norwegian capital Oslo, which eventually led to the historic land-for-peace deal in 1993 under which Israel agreed to relinquish control of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Mr Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with prime minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). After Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Peres served as acting prime minister and acting defence minister for seven months until the 1996 elections, during which he attempted to maintain the momentum of the peace process, but was narrowly defeated by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Mr Peres’s death was formally confirmed on Wednesday morning by his son Chemi in a news conference at the hospital where his father had been treated.

“Today with deep sorrow we bid farewell to our beloved father, the ninth president of Israel,” he said.

“Our father’s legacy has always been to look to tomorrow. We were privileged to be part of his private family, but today we sense that the entire nation of Israel and the global community share this great loss. We share this pain together.”

Global tributes

President Michael D Higgins said he had learned of his death with “great sadness”. His “life mirrored some of the great dramas of 20th century Europe and the Middle East and he shall be remembered for his courage that saw him change course from confrontation to reconciliation”, he said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said with his passing “Israel has lost one of its greatest statesmen”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said: “Shimon Peres was a great statesman with a remarkable and illustrious political career that stretches back to the 1950s.

“First and foremost, he was a voice for peace, and he will perhaps be most remembered for his central role in the Oslo Accords . . . I hope that his life and his leadership will inspire future generations of leaders committed to establishing lasting peace in the region to make that aspiration a reality.”

In a statement following his death, US president Barack Obama described Mr Peres as: “the essence of Israel itself”.

“As Americans, we are in his debt because, having worked with every US president since John F Kennedy, no one did more over so many years as Shimon Peres to build the alliance between our two countries – an unbreakable alliance that today is closer and stronger than it has ever been,” he said.

Former US president George H W Bush also praised “his unyielding determination and principle, Shimon Peres time and again helped guide his beloved country through the crucible of mortal challenge”.

Former president Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said they had “lost a true and treasured friend” following news of the death.

The Clintons said Israel had lost a leader “who championed its security, prosperity and limitless possibilities from its birth to his last day on Earth”.

They called Mr Peres “a genius with a big heart who used his gifts to imagine a future of reconciliation, not conflict”.

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau, said: “Shimon Peres was, above all, a man of peace and a man dedicated to the wellbeing of the Jewish people” who he said was “was devoted to promoting understanding between his country and its neighbours, and shared a Nobel peace prize for his efforts to create peace in the Middle East”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said he was a “great statesman” and was “forst and foremost” a “voice for peace”.

“I hope that his life and his leadership will inspire future generations of leaders committed to establishing lasting peace in the region to make that aspiration a reality.”

Additional reporting Guardian service