Shimon Peres, one of the last members of Israel’s founding generation, vacated his position as Israeli president on July 24 after an illustrious six-decade career as a politician, statesman and civil servant.
He stepped down as Israel continued to wage its third war against Hamas in six years. Typically, he was in the thick of things until the very end. As rockets rained down on Israel and the Israeli army battled Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Peres met United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem and comforted Israeli families who had lost sons in the fighting.
Peres, 90, the world’s oldest serving head of state until his scheduled resignation, filled the most important positions in the Jewish state.
During the 1948 War of Independence, Israel’s first conflict with the Arab states, he purchased arms and munitions abroad for the Haganah, the precursor of the Israeli army.
Born in 1923 in what is now Belarus and what was then Poland, Peres arrived in Palestine in 1934. His father, a lumber merchant and a fervent Zionist, had already made aliyah. Peres, a founder of a kibbutz, joined the Mapai, the dominant political party in pre-state Israel.
A protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Peres was appointed deputy director general of the ministry of defence in 1952, at a time when Israel was struggling to set down roots.
Promoted to director general in 1954, Peres played a key role in forging close relations with France, acquiring advanced French aircraft like the Mirage for Israel’s fledgling air force, building a nuclear reactor in Dimona with the technical assistance of France and forming a secret alliance with France and Britain on the eve of the 1956 Sinai war.
Peres entered politics in 1959 when he was elected to the Knesset. He was also deputy minister of defence, preparing Israel for the next war. In 1969, Golda Meir, the prime minister, appointed him minister of immigrant absorption. Buoyed by Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, new immigrants were pouring into Israel.
After a stint as minister of transportation and communications, Peres, in 1974, was appointed minister of defence by his rival, Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister. Peres supported the nascent Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank, which Israel had conquered seven years earlier. In addition, he was one of the planners of the 1976 Entebbe raid in Uganda, during which Israeli commandos rescued hostages who had been aboard an Air France plane commandeered by Palestinian hijackers.
Peres became acting prime minister following a scandal that forced Rabin to resign. In 1977, Peres was elected leader of the left-of-center Labor party, which lost that year’s election to Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party.
Peres supported Begin’s invitation to invite Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, to Jerusalem. It was a visit that paved the way for Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab nation. However, he was critical of Begin’s decision, in 1981, to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad, fearing it would be a risky undertaking and yield few results.
In the wake of the inconclusive 1984 election, Peres and the Likud’s leader, Yitzhak Shamir, established a national unity government. During the next six years, they shared the prime minister’s and foreign minister’s job. Peres was instrumental in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from much of Lebanon, which Israel had invaded in 1982.
In 1987, Peres reached a framework peace agreement with King Hussein of Jordan, but Shamir scuttled it.
In 1988, Peres was briefly minister of finance. After Rabin reclaimed the prime ministership in 1992, he appointed Peres minister of foreign affairs. Peres played a behind-the-scenes role in the 1993 Olso peace process, during which Israel and the PLO recognized each other.
By then, Peres, a pragmatist, was considered something of a dove. “I have changed because the situation has changed,” he explained. “When I thought Israel was in danger, I was a hawk … Once I felt that we could go for peace, I changed.”
Peres replaced Rabin after his assassination in 1995 at the hands of a Jewish radical. In the following year, he lost the election to Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party.
Ehud Barak, who had defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 election, appointed Peres to his cabinet as minister of regional cooperation, but he had little of substance to do in that post.
Two years later, as the second Palestinian uprising raged, he agreed to become Ariel Sharon’s minister of foreign affairs. In an attempt to end the rebellion, Peres met Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, several times, but to no avail.
In 2005, when Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, Peres bolted the Labor party to join Sharon’s new centrist Kadima party. Peres was elected president in 2007, succeeding Moshe Katsav, who had resigned in disgrace after a sex scandal.
As president, Peres spoke his mind on current affairs and promoted peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Tw0 years ago, when Israel seemed on the brink of attacking Iran’s nuclear sites, Peres urged caution, though he fully backed economic sanctions against Iran.
In 2011, he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas covertly reached an agreement on the outlines of a peace treaty, but Netanyahu torpedoed it. Unlike Netanyahu, Peres believes that Abbas is a reliable partner. As he put it last month,”Abbas is the best (Palestinian) partner Israel has ever had, and has now. I think he’s a man of his word. I think he’s a man of courage.”
Israel, Peres noted, should “not miss the opportunity to continue the peace process with him.”
Netanyahu disagreed, claiming that Abbas was not a partner after the Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation pact with Hamas.
One can assume that Peres — the co-winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in peace — will espouse his dovish ideas after he returns to the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace, which promotes reconciliation and peaceful relations with the Palestinians.
Now, more than ever, Israel needs peace.