Few Israelis dreamed as ardently for peace as did Shimon Peres. Peres, who died last week at the age of 93, was no idle dreamer, however. He was an unabashed, articulate and indefatigable advocate of peace — who also, ironically, was one of the most important architects of the Israeli military machine. While he had a checkered political career — he will be remembered more for the defeats his Labor Party suffered under his leadership than victories — he was one of the country’s most popular politicians at the time of his death. As the world remembers this statesman, it is important that his commitment to peace not be forgotten or left unfulfilled.
Peres was born Shimon Persky in 1923 to a merchant family in rural Poland. His family emigrated to Palestine 11 years later, and after studying at an agricultural school he helped found a kibbutz. He soon became active in the political group that was to become the Labor Party. He showed promise: At the age of 18 he was appointed coordinator of a youth movement attached to the General Labor Federation, where he caught the attention of David Ben-Gurion, founder of the state of Israel.
When Israel gained independence in 1948, Peres was named head of the naval service, a job that took him to the United States on purchasing missions. He learned English, a skill that allowed him to pursue education at U.S. universities and laid a foundation for the international diplomacy that would mark his career. He put that education to use upon his return to Israel by reorganizing the Defense Ministry. While he was instrumental in developing Israel’s indigenous weapons industry, he was also a tough negotiator on arms deals. That effort allowed him to build a relationship with France that laid the foundation for Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
Peres entered politics in 1959, when he ran for Parliament; his association with Ben-Gurion ensured him a position high enough on the party’s electoral list to claim a seat. He served in various Cabinet posts, rising to the apex of the party hierarchy, but only managed to claim the top post in 1977 when Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister, was forced to step down following a scandal. In the three elections that followed, however, Peres’ party lost to the conservative Likud party. For many, those defeats define his career.
That assessment is mistaken. While Peres may have presided over electoral defeats, his work was anything but a failure. In addition to the creation of the formidable Israeli military machine and its nuclear weapons program, Peres as defense minister oversaw the successful commando raid on the plane at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976 that rescued 91 passengers and 12 crew members. He was prime minister in 1985 when Israel secretly airlifted nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews and took them to safety in Israel.
Peres was also instrumental in pushing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign the 1993 peace accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an agreement that yielded the historic handshake on the White House lawn between the two adversaries, the self-governing Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the Nobel Peace Prize for the three men. At the signing ceremony, Peres declared, “What we are doing today is more than signing an agreement; it is a revolution,” in a statement that encapsulated his entire career, “Yesterday a dream, today a commitment.”
Unfortunately, old antagonisms could not be so easily overcome. Rabin was assassinated just two years later by a hardline Israeli who rejected the peace overtures, and a series of terrorist attacks in Israel undermined popular support for Peres’ vision. The right prevailed in the next election, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, and Peres was never again the soaring figure in Israel’s electoral politics. In 2007, he was elected by Parliament to serve as president, a seven-year, largely ceremonial post. He used that position to push for peace, reminding Israelis of the moral — and security — imperative that lay behind that quest. At the time of his retirement in 2014, he was one of the most respected figures in the country, a much admired senior statesman.
That respect was evident at his funeral, at which heads of state from around the world commemorated a warrior for peace. His political rival — some would say nemesis — Netanyahu applauded Peres’ “life of purpose … he was a great man of Israel, he was a great man of the world,” while U.S. President Barack Obama added, “Shimon showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” Former U.S. President Bill Clinton dismissed those who dismiss Peres’ relentless work for peace: “Critics described him as a naive, over-optimistic dreamer. They were only wrong about the naive part. He knew exactly what he was doing in being overly optimistic … he never gave up on anybody, I mean anybody.” The world must remember that energy and that mission and continue — and complete — his work.
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