Shimon Peres: The Israeli hawk who turned Nobel peace laureate

Updated on Sep 28, 2016 08:28 AM IST

Peres was a towering figure in Israeli politics, and the last of the country’s founding fathers.

Peres shared the Nobel with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.(REUTERS FILE)
Peres shared the Nobel with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.(REUTERS FILE)
ByAFP, Jerusalem

Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday aged 93, was an Israeli elder statesman, Nobel laureate and two-time prime minister who spearheaded peace efforts with the Palestinians after breaking with his hawkish past.

He suffered a major stroke on September 13 and had been hospitalised near Tel Aviv since then.

Peres, who also served as president, was a towering figure in Israeli politics for decades and the last of the country’s founding fathers.

Beyond his accomplishments in the public eye, he was seen as a driving force in the development of Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme.

He was particularly lauded abroad, and his lavish 80th birthday party was attended by ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. Film director Woody Allen sent greetings “from a bad Jew to a very great Jew.”

He once confided that the secret to his longevity was daily exercise, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.

The highlight of his career came in 1994, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

The 1993 accords were hailed as historic, leading to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and parameters that were supposed to lead to peace in five years.

It was sealed with a symbolic handshake between Rabin and Arafat in Washington. Peres was foreign minister at the time and played a key role.

But more than two decades later, Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive and some are ready to bury the idea of a two-state solution.

Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo accords in 1995, while the bloody second Palestinian intifada broke out five years later.

As a new round of talks which later collapsed began in 2013, Peres however expressed his optimism.

He said the negotiations had “a clear purpose” to have “a Jewish state by the name of Israel and an Arab state by the name of Palestine not fighting each other but living together in friendship and cooperation”.

“There is no alternative to peace. There is no sense to go to war,” he said.

“Terror doesn’t have a message. Terror cannot bake bread and cannot offer fresh air to breathe. It’s costly, it’s useless, it doesn’t produce anything.”

Hitchhike meeting

Peres held nearly every major office in a career spanning five decades.

He was among those instrumental in establishing the state of Israel, alongside its first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and other iconic figures like Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.

Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British mandatory Palestine when he was 11.

He joined the Zionist struggle in the 1940s and while hitchhiking met Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor.

He was part of the Haganah, the predecessor to the Israeli military, and at only 29 became director general of the nascent defence ministry.

While in that position, he helped plan the 1956 Suez war, in which Israel was allied with France and Britain against Egypt.

Peres once hawkishly rejected any compromise with hostile Arab states, but said he was converted after 1977, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

“I didn’t change, I think the situation has changed,” Peres told Time magazine in an interview published in February.

“As long as there was a danger to the existence of Israel, I was what you would call a hawk... The minute I felt the Arabs are open to negotiation, I said that’s what we prefer too.”

But his embrace of peace efforts extended only so far. He was prime minister in 1996 when more than 100 civilians were killed while sheltering at a UN peacekeepers’ base in the Lebanese village of Qana fired upon by Israel.

Political stumbles

Despite his reputation as a statesman, he never managed to outright win a national election. Many in Israel opposed to the Oslo accords also blamed him for what they saw as their failure.

A member of parliament since 1959, Peres headed the Labour party from 1977.

He was prime minister between 1984 and 1986, then again from 1995-1996 after Rabin’s assassination.

He would also serve as foreign, defence and finance minister.

In 2005 he left Labour to join the new centrist Kadima headed by Ariel Sharon.

The alliance ensured Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, although hopes of subsequently reviving the peace process came to nothing.

In 2007, he was elected by parliament to the largely ceremonial post of Israeli president, a crowning triumph in a career whose fortunes appeared dead just two years before, when he lost the leadership of Labour and quit the party.

Before becoming president, he had dedicated much of his time to promoting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world through his Peres Center for Peace.

He left office as president in 2014, but maintained an active schedule even after suffering heart trouble in January 2016.

And he never lost faith in the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think it’s the only thing which is possible in order to bring an end to terror, violence and hatred,” he said in the Time interview.

Peres, who spoke English and French as well as Hebrew, was married to Sonya, who died in 2011. The couple had three children and numerous grandchildren.

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