Shimon Peres, Israel’s Ardent Champion of Peace, Dead at 93

  • Helped forge historic 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians
  • Served as premier, finance minister; developed nuclear reactor

Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres Dies at 93

Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel’s defense establishment who evolved into a tireless advocate for Middle East peacemaking, has died. He was 93.

Peres suffered a stroke on Sept. 13 at the Tel Aviv-area hospital where he died on Wednesday. “His only interest was to serve the Jewish people,” his son Chemi Peres said in a statement broadcast on Army Radio.

Peres served as Israel’s prime minister, president, finance minister and other senior posts in a political career that spanned more than six decades. From procuring arms for the fledgling state’s 1948 War of Independence and developing its nuclear reactor in the 1950s, to the Nobel Peace Prize he shared for the historic 1993 peace accords with the Palestinians, he played a role in most milestones in his country’s political and diplomatic history.

“The guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers,” is how former aide Mitchell Barak, citing the Book of Psalms, described the Israeli leader. “Even after the age of 90, Peres was still trying to think of what Israel needed strategically.”

World leaders past and present planned to attend the state funeral Friday for the last of Israel’s generation of founding figures. President Barack Obama hailed Peres’s “extraordinary life” in a statement.

“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves,” said Obama, who presented Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “My friend Shimon was one of those people.” 

Captured Land

Although he later developed a reputation as a dove, in the state’s early decades Peres was known as one of the more hawkish figures in the ruling Labor party.

Peres initially viewed Jewish settlements on land that Israel captured in 1967 as a bulwark against enemies and backed their development. Over the years, his position changed. Together with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he forged the historic 1993 Oslo accords, seen at the time as the foundation for Palestinian statehood. The three men won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, and Peres famously declared the advent of a new Middle East.

His vision of peace was not to be as violence continued on both sides. Many Israelis opposed territorial concessions to Palestinians and staged violent protests against the deal that culminated in Rabin’s 1995 assassination by a Jewish extremist. Peres stepped into Rabin’s job, then lost his last run for prime minister six months later, to Benjamin Netanyahu.

By late 2000, peace efforts crumbled amid the second Palestinian uprising against Israel.

‘Not Wrong’

“Many people say I was wrong when I talked about the new Middle East and the need for more ties with our Arab neighbors,” he told Bloomberg in 2012. “I’m not wrong. It’s just taking more time than I thought.”

Bill Clinton, who was president when the 1993 peace accords were signed on the White House lawn, lauded Peres’s vision. “His critics called him a dreamer,” he said. “That he was -- a lucid, eloquent dreamer until the very end. Thank goodness.”

Another key player in the agreement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said he was “saddened” by Peres’s death. “He made every effort to achieve lasting peace from the 1993 Oslo Accords until the last moment of his life,” he said in a statement posted on the website of the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst and former Palestinian Authority cabinet member, took a dimmer view of Peres’s legacy. “Peres’s camp, which believed in territorial compromise as a strategic solution to the conflict, was defeated,” Khatib said.

Clinton, Obama, French President Francois Hollande and Britain’s Prince Charles are among the dignitaries scheduled to attend the funeral at Israel’s national cemetery, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will not attend, accordiing to a campaign official. The ministry had said earlier that she would.

Dairy Farmer

Born Szymon Perski Aug. 2, 1923, in Wiszniew, Poland (now part of Belarus), Peres moved with his family to British-ruled Palestine in 1934.

After attending agricultural boarding school, he lived on Kibbutz Alumot near the Sea of Galilee, working as a dairy farmer and shepherd until he joined the Haganah, the underground precursor of the Israel Defense Forces.

While in his 20s, Peres caught the eye of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who charged him with buying arms abroad for the fledgling army before the 1948 war.

Nuclear Warheads

He later persuaded France to provide technology to build Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, widely thought to be a military facility, though Israel has never said so. That reactor was Peres’s greatest achievement, said Yoram Dori, a Peres adviser for 20 years. The Washington-based Arms Control Association estimated that Israel had 75 to 200 nuclear warheads in 2012.

Peres was a member of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, from 1959 to 2007. He held the defense, foreign affairs and finance portfolios, and served twice as prime minister: for two years as part of a unity government, and for seven months after Rabin was assassinated.

During his first tenure as prime minister, Peres, with the help of Stanley Fischer, who is now vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, tamed annual inflation exceeding 400 percent. During his second term, an Israeli military operation to stop Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon killed about 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken shelter at a United Nations camp. Peres said Israel had no idea civilians were present and expressed sorrow and regret for the deaths.

Political ‘Schemer’

As a politician, Peres was admired for his gravitas. Political allies, though, distrusted him, including Rabin, who was quoted by Israeli media as calling him an “indefatigable schemer.” At one campaign stop in the 1980s, he was pelted with tomatoes, media reported at the time.

Impeccably dressed, well-read and multilingual, the internationally feted statesman was often better received abroad than at home, where he failed to lead his Labor party to outright victory in five parliamentary elections. He counted Bill Clinton, French President Francois Mitterrand, Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone among his friends, and was a former vice president of the London-based Socialist International.

In 2007, at 83, the Israeli parliament elected Peres to the mostly ceremonial role of president, replacing Moshe Katsav, who resigned to unsuccessfully fight rape charges. In that non-partisan office, he came closest to enjoying the popular acclaim that had eluded him for years.

“As Israel’s president, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved it,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement. “Few people contributed as much to our people and to our state.”

High-Tech Advocate

Known for his quick mind and wide-ranging interests, Peres was an energetic advocate of Israel’s high-tech industry. After completing his presidential term in 2014, he founded Peres & Associates to help promote Israel’s companies abroad.

“The truth about Peres is simple: He cannot stop. His eyes, as always, look far into the future,” biographer Michael Bar-Zohar wrote in “Shimon Peres: The Biography,” released in 2007. “Peres doesn’t suffer from his advanced age. But his age instills in him a sense of urgency. He admits to not having enough time for all he wants to do.”

— With assistance by Amy Teibel, Laurence Arnold, and David Wainer

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