2016-10-12 / Mideast

Passing of Shimon Peres marks end of era

By BEN SALES JTA


Shimon Peres (left) walking with David Ben-Gurion (center) in Kibbutz Sde Boker, Israel, Jan. 3, 1969. 
JTA photo by Government Press Office. Shimon Peres (left) walking with David Ben-Gurion (center) in Kibbutz Sde Boker, Israel, Jan. 3, 1969. JTA photo by Government Press Office. TEL AVIV—The passing of Shimon Peres, the former defense hawk turned Nobel Peace Prize winner and the last of Israel’s founders, marks the end of an era.

Peres died at age 93,

The phoenix of Israeli politics, Peres continually reinvented himself as the country changed. He began his career in the Defense Ministry and was the architect of Israel’s nuclear program, but in his later years Peres was more closely identified with the quest for peace with the Palestinians. He was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo Accords, the landmark Israeli- Palestinian peace agreement, and was present on the White House lawn for its signing in 1993.

Though he served as prime minister three times without ever winning an election outright, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that has yet to materialize, Peres emerged late in life as Israel’s beloved elder statesmen and a rare figure capable of uniting a fractious society.

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Peres emerged as Israel’s global ambassador for peace, predicting the emergence of a “new Middle East” in which conflict was supplanted by shared prosperity. Elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2007, talk of peace pervaded nearly every speech he gave. Well into his 90s, Peres still insisted he would live to see the day when peace would come.

Peace, however, doomed his political career. After middling political success in the 1980s, the Oslo Accords debilitated Peres’ Labor Party, which fell from power in 2001 with the outbreak of the second intifada and has yet to win another election. When Peres won the presidency in 2007, he was a member of Kadima, a short-lived centrist party.

As president, Peres rose again, this time as Israel’s wise old man. Free to rise above the political fray, Peres trumpeted Israel’s technological achievements and articulated its hopes for a brighter future. More than anything, he became a symbol of the country’s resilience—able to survive, thrive and remain optimistic—no matter the challenges.

“Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “He set his gaze on the future. He did so much to protect our people. He worked to his last days for peace and a better future for all. As Israel’s president, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved him for it.”

Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland, in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Tel Aviv in 1934. At 20, he became the head of a Labor Zionist youth group, through which he met David Ben- Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister. In 1945, Peres married Sonya Gelman, who had just returned from World War II service in the British Army.

In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, managing arms purchases and personnel. After Israel gained independence the following year, he continued working in the Defense Ministry, becoming its youngest-ever director general in 1952 at 29. In that capacity he expanded Israeli arms purchases from France and later helped manage the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He also founded Israel’s arms production industry and led efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, becoming deputy defense minister. He would serve in the Knesset for an as-yet unmatched total of 48 years.

Peres was the architect of the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Peres became acting prime minister, but lost the post again in a close race with Likud’s Netanyahu. Following his defeat in ’96, he founded the Peres Center for Peace, which runs programs aimed at regional reconciliation.

Peres remained in the Labor Party through 2005, twice regaining the chairmanship and serving another stint as foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In 2006, following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Peres joined Sharon’s new centrist Kadima party.

The next year he won a race for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency. As president, Peres stayed largely above the political fray, though he conducted secret negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011, culminating in a peace deal that Netanyahu’s government rejected. After leaving the presidency, Peres remained largely silent on politics.

Peres frequently traveled internationally as president, focusing his speeches and activism on encouraging Middle East peace and touting Israel’s technological achievements. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. Peres’ annual Presidential Conference brought together leaders in politics, science and culture. He finished his presidential term in 2014.

Following Peres’ funeral, which included military honors, Peres was buried between Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, two former prime ministers with deeply conflicting views on peace and security. 

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