Shimon Peres, one of the last surviving pillars of Israel’s founding generation, who did more than anyone to build up his country’s formidable military, then worked as hard to establish a lasting peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours, died on Wednesday in a Tel Aviv area hospital. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by two people with direct knowledge who did not want to speak publicly until the family made an announcement. The family planned to address the news media in Israel on Wednesday morning.
Peres died just over two weeks after suffering a stroke. Doctors kept him largely unconscious and on a breathing tube since then in hopes that it would give his brain a chance to heal. But he deteriorated as the nation he once led watched his last battle play out publicly and leaders from around the world sent wishes for his recovery.
As prime minister (twice); as minister of defence, foreign affairs, finance and transportation; and, until 2014, as president, Peres never left the public stage during Israel’s seven decades.
He led the creation of Israel’s defence industry, negotiated key arms deals with France and Germany and was the prime mover behind the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons. But he was consistent in his search for an accommodation with the Arab world, a search that in recent years left him orphaned as Israeli society lost interest, especially after the upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring led to tumult on its borders.
Chosen by Parliament in 2007 to serve a seven-year term as president, Peres had complicated relations with the hawkish government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, elected in 2009. While largely a ceremonial post, the presidency afforded Peres a perch with access and public attention, and he tried to exert his influence.
For someone who was dogged for decades by a reputation for vanity and backroom dealing, Peres ended his years in public office as a remarkably beloved figure, promoting the country’s high-tech prowess and cultural reach, a founding pioneer who set an example for forward thinking.
Never at a loss for a bon mot in his Polish-accented Hebrew, English and French, Peres said of his transformation: “For 60 years, I was the most controversial figure in the country, and suddenly I’m the most popular man in the land. Truth be told, I don’t know when I was happier, then or now."
In his efforts to help Israel find acceptance in a hostile region, Peres’ biggest breakthrough came in 1993 when he worked out a plan with the Palestine Liberation Organization for self-government in Gaza and in part of the West Bank, both of which were occupied by Israel.
After months of secret negotiation with representatives of the PLO, conducted with the help of Norwegian diplomats and intellectuals, Peres persuaded his old political rival Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, to accept the plan, which became known as the Oslo Accords.
Peres, who was serving as foreign minister, signed the accords on 13 September, 1993, in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House as Rabin and their old enemy Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, looked on and, with some prodding by President Bill Clinton, shook hands.
It was a gesture both unprecedented and historic. Up to that time, Israel had refused to negotiate directly with the PLO. Peres broke the taboo, and the impasse.
“What we are doing today is more than signing an agreement; it is a revolution," he said at the ceremony. “Yesterday a dream, today a commitment."
“We are sincere," he pledged to the Palestinians. “We mean business. We do not seek to shape your lives or determine your destiny. Let all of us turn from bullets to ballots, from guns to shovels."
Later that day, in a television interview, Peres pronounced himself 100 percent sure that peace had arrived. With the changes in the world—the end of the Cold War; the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, its military, financial and diplomatic support of the PLO; and the drying up of funds from Arab countries angered over Arafat’s support of Iraq in the recent Persian Gulf war—the time had come for the Palestinians, too, to seek peace.
“If you have children," he said, “you cannot feed them forever with flags for breakfast and cartridges for lunch. You need something more substantial. Unless you educate your children and spend less money on conflicts, unless you develop your science, technology and industry, you don’t have a future."
Peres, Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.
It did not end until Arafat died in 2004, bringing new leadership to the Palestinians and a new effort at coexistence led by Sharon, a former hawk who was elected prime minister and withdrew Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza and small parts of the West Bank.
Peres had tried before to get a peace settlement, in 1987, at that time between Israel and Jordan. He was foreign minister in a coalition government with Yitzhak Shamir when he proposed an international peace conference on the Middle East. But Shamir and his Likud faction scuttled the plan.
Peres had sought to settle the future of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel had occupied since the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. As a first step, he proposed that Jordan and Israel could either divide the land or share the government but that Israel should not control the area forever.
A coalition, and calm
Peres became prime minister at the head of an unusual coalition of Israel’s two major political parties, his own Labor Party, and the Likud, the party led by Shamir, who served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In accordance with the coalition agreement, the two men exchanged posts after 25 months.
Peres brought a period of tranquillity to the social environment, which had been frayed by animosities between European and Middle Eastern Jews and between religious Jews and secular Jews.
He presided over the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon after an invasion that had generated unprecedented controversy, and he became the first Israeli prime minister to take the difficult steps required to deal with the nation’s fundamental economic problems and ruinous inflation.
During his time in office, Israel airlifted some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews who had trekked to refugee camps in Sudan to escape famine, anti-Semitism, forced conscription of boys and other threats that made their lives in Ethiopia precarious. Peres called the clandestine rescue operation a “daring and wonderful" act of “self-redemption."
Taking over what was expected to be a government of national impasse, Peres left office with an image as a dignified, self-confident statesman.
But while he was prime minister, severe strains developed in relations between the United States and Israel growing out of a major spy scandal involving an American, Jonathan Jay Pollard, and the disclosure in 1986 of Iranian arms deals.
A man of medium height and slender, athletic build—his dark hair turned gray and then white in his later years—Peres always exuded vitality, despite a schedule that kept him going 18 hours a day. When, on his 88th birthday, he was offered a traditional Jewish greeting, “May you live till 120," he retorted without missing a beat, “Don’t be stingy."
Peres was married to the former Sonya Gelman, who shunned the spotlight to the point of refusing to move into the president’s house when he took his last public post. She died in January 2011. They had three children: a daughter, Zvia, and two sons, Jonathan and Nehemya. They and Peres’ eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren survive him.
Peres was an effective speaker, comfortable in front of large audiences as well as the television camera. He cultivated party members—remembering their names and attending their weddings and bar mitzvahs—and nurtured his relationship with the intelligentsia.
He also wrote poetry and was given to quoting the ancient Greeks and Flaubert and Churchill. He published a dozen books, including The New Middle East, in 1993, and Battling for Peace, a memoir, in 1995. His last book was an affectionate political biography of his mentor, the country’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
A journey from Poland
He was born Shimon Persky on 16 August, 1923, in the small village of Vishniewa, Poland, to a merchant family. His parents, Yitzhak and Sara Persky, took him to Palestine when he was 11, where he studied in Tel Aviv and then entered an agricultural school.
In 1941, he helped found Kibbutz Alumot in the eastern Lower Galilee, where he worked as a herdsman and was elected kibbutz secretary. He soon became active in the Mapai, which was to become Israel’s Labour Party, and, at 18, was appointed the coordinator of the youth movement of the Histadrut, the General Labour Federation.
He rose rapidly, getting experience in the intricacies of Israeli political life. In 1944, Ben-Gurion, then the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, sent Peres with a small reconnaissance group to Eilat on the Red Sea to survey the Sinai Desert and make maps that became important strategic assets during the 1948 war of independence.
It was on that mission that a friend sighted a nest of eagles, “peres" in Hebrew. “Persky," he said, “why don’t you change your family name to Peres?" He accepted the suggestion, though, in fact, the bird they saw was more a vulture than an eagle.
When Israel became independent in 1948, Peres was named head of the naval service. Within two years, he was sent to the United States to lead a defence supply mission in New York. He was 27 and spoke no English, but within three months, after rounds of intensive private lessons, he was fluent. He took courses at the New School for Social Research and New York University, and later at the Harvard School of Public Administration.
In 1951, Ben-Gurion, then prime minister and minister of defence, appointed Peres director-general of the Defence Ministry, where he used his Harvard training to reorganize the department. Peres became known as one of “Ben-Gurion’s boys"— protégés of the “Old Man"— a group that included Teddy Kollek and Moshe Dayan.
Those years may have been the genesis of a lifelong rivalry with Rabin, who at the time was chief of the operations branch, the second-highest position in the Israeli army, and who complained of what he called Peres’ excessive authority.
At the Defence Ministry, Peres was in charge of a substantial portion of the nation’s total budget, and he played a central role in developing the young nation’s industry, particularly in aeronautics and electronics.
He stressed domestic weapons production, but when Egypt received advanced military equipment from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, Peres began to cast about for new sources of supply. He finally turned to France.
His timing was excellent. The French believed the Algerian revolutionaries fighting for independence were fueled by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and saw Israel as a source of intelligence about Egypt. Peres negotiated a $1 billion arms deal and acquired a reputation as a canny bargainer.
The arms negotiations formed a basis for the Franco-Israeli alliance that led to Israel’s lightning capture of Sinai during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. Zeev Schiff, for many years the military editor of the newspaper Haaretz, said, “There is no doubt that Peres was one of the brains behind Suez."
Ben-Gurion felt that a pre-emptive war was bad for Israel in terms of public opinion and was reluctant until the last. Peres saw it as an opportunity to get a better position among the superpowers, a special relationship through a “joint venture of going to war together."
Out of that joint venture came French help in building a nuclear reactor in Dimona, which provided Israel with the ability to build nuclear weapons.
“I reached the stage in France where I was trusted by everybody, and really the sky was the limit," Peres said many years later.
In 1957, Peres was awarded the French Legion of Honor, one of many international distinctions. In 2012, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The American honour partly reflected Israel’s shift in alliance to the United States from Europe in previous decades. While under Ben-Gurion, and his successor, Levi Eshkol, Peres negotiated with the West German defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, to get arms and continued to get weapons from France, as well. But he came to rely increasingly on the United States. He visited Washington frequently and met with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Peres ran for the country’s Parliament, the Knesset, in 1959, in his first bid for national elective office. With the support of Ben-Gurion, he was given a position high enough on his party’s electoral list to be assured of victory.
In the political turmoil that preceded the 1967 Middle East War, Peres tried to negotiate a return to power for Ben-Gurion, who had retired. In the course of his negotiations, he proposed a coalition to Menachem Begin, the head of the right-wing Herut Party, despite Ben-Gurion’s belief that if Begin ever came to power, he would bring Israel to the “precipice of destruction."
Shabtai Teveth, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the biographer of Ben-Gurion, said in an interview, “I believe Peres will go down in Zionist and Israeli history as the man who legitimized Begin and the Herut."
Ten years later, in 1977, when Peres challenged Rabin, the split in the Labour Party opened the way for the election of Begin as prime minister.
When Israel’s top leaders were discredited because of the country’s lack of preparedness for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Peres made a bid for power. To block him, Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir recruited Rabin, who had been ambassador to the United States and bore no responsibility for the wartime failures. Rabin named Peres defence minister, a decision he later came to regret. In his memoirs, Rabin called him unscrupulous and untrustworthy. He wrote that he could not believe a word Peres said.
Their decades-old feud flared again in 1976 when an Air France plane that left Tel Aviv for Paris was hijacked in Athens and taken to Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers held about 100 Israeli passengers hostage. Peres accused Prime Minister Rabin of weakness for resisting a military solution. A raid by Israeli commandos on 3 July, 1976, rescued 91 passengers and 12 crew members.
The next year, Peres again sought nomination as his party’s candidate for prime minister, but he again lost out to Rabin. When Rabin was forced to drop out after disclosures that he and his wife had violated Israeli law by maintaining a bank account in Washington, Peres led the party, but he lost in the general election to Begin.
Peres finally became prime minister in 1984 when he led his Labor Party into the coalition with Likud.
He returned to office as foreign minister in July 1992 in the government of Rabin and was soon working toward the accord signed a year later. In 1996, Peres, who had taken over as prime minister after Rabin’s assassination, called an early election, certain of victory.
But a series of terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Peres’s decision to mount an offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — during which scores of Lebanese refugees sheltering at a United Nations base in Qana died in an Israeli artillery barrage — led to ill feelings in Israel and the surprise victory by Netanyahu of Likud.
Ehud Barak then replaced Peres as head of Labor and kept him in a minor role in his government, which was elected in 1999.
Peres spent that period partly building up his Peres Center for Peace but made another political comeback when Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001 over Barak.
Peres took Labour into the Sharon-led government in a bid for national unity. Later, in 2005, he left Labour and joined the new centrist party, Kadima, formed by Sharon.
Peres, who frequently drew on historical allusions, thought of himself as philosopher more than a politician. When asked about the 1993 Oslo Accords, he said: “There was no alternative. We had to do it." He added, “An ancient Greek philosopher was asked what is the difference between war and peace. ‘In war,’ he replied, ‘the old bury the young. In peace, the young bury the old.’ I felt that if I could make the world better for the young, that would be the greatest thing we can do." The New York Times
Isabel Kershner and Ethan Bronner contributed reporting.