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Shimon Peres obituary: Nobel Prize-winning president and the last of Israel’s founding fathers


Peres was the one of Israel’s leading statesmen and led the efforts to create peace in the Middle East

Shimon Peres, who served as Israel’s ninth president from 2007 until 2014, is the only person to have held all four top jobs in Israeli governments: prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister and finance minister. Yet, even into his nineties, he was reluctant to go home and water his window boxes. He devoted all his adult life to getting things done. So long as there were tasks and challenges, he saw no reason to stop.

His health deteriorated two weeks ago, when he suffered a stroke. He died today at Sheba Medical Centre, surrounded by his family.

The 1993 Oslo Accords, the cornerstone of his vision of a New Middle East, failed to bring peace with the Palestinians, but he went on trying: talking to Arab leaders, hatching initiatives, promoting grassroots reconciliation through his peace foundation. In the Jewish tradition, I once wished him to live to 120. “Why,” he retorted, “should I be so modest?”

He never had it easy. As leader of the Labour party, he notoriously failed five times to win a commanding parliamentary majority. He fared well in opinion polls, badly at the ballot box. He was even beaten in 2000 by Moshe Katsav, a second-rank Likud politician, for the largely ceremonial presidency. But, as his friend the novelist Amos Oz put it: “Peres had a rare ability to recover from shattering defeats. He had the kind of stamina I don’t think I have seen in any other human being.”

The public tended to distrust him. They saw him as an intriguer, too selfish by half. Yitzhak Rabin accused him of treachery in the Seventies when Rabin was prime minister and Peres defence minister. In his memoirs, Rabin branded him an “indefatigable schemer,” and later denounced him for pulling a “stinking trick” in trying to topple Yitzhak Shamir, Labour’s Likud coalition partner, in 1990.

The labels became part of the political lexicon. But Peres was unabashed. “I am proud of it,” he told an Israeli interviewer. “I wish there more such schemers because then the ship would sail more quickly.”

He was a practical optimist, a statesman who believed not only that things would get better, but that they could be made to get better. He was a problem-solver, but one who shunned cozy compromises. Yossi Beilin, one of his protégés, said that Peres didn’t react to events, he tried to shape them.

Nimrod Novak, another backroom boy, testified: “Sometimes we, his advisers, preached a certain drastic measure, but he was always able to see more elements of the picture, to weigh conflicting interests, and in most cases to come up with a decision that in retrospect was clearly better.”

Peres went for bold solutions, like the 1976 rescue of 100 airline passengers held hostage by German and Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport. As prime minister in the mid-Eighties, he pulled most of Israel’s troops out of Lebanon and introduced radical economic reforms that slashed annual inflation from 400 per cent to less than 20. As Rabin’s foreign minister in the Nineties, Oslo was his ultimate coup.

He was not always a natural candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize he shared in 1994 with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. He was a hawk before he was a dove. In the Fifties, as an aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, he negotiated a secret agreement with Britain and France to invade Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. He fathered Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, as well as its aircraft and armaments industries. He negotiated arms deals with France and Germany long before the United States became Israel’s main supplier.

As defence minister in the Seventies, he acquiesced in the establishment of Jewish settlements in Arab-populated hill areas of the West Bank in breach of his own party’s declared policy. In a reversion to type, he was an outspoken champion of Israel’s assault on Lebanon in July 2006.

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August 2020
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