”When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist.” – Shimon Peres
If you follow the news you are more likely than not to have heard of the recent death of Shimon Peres, who died from a fatal stroke on September 27th, aged 93. Tributes for this Israeli statesman have poured in from across the globe, leaving little for me to contribute here. In this article, though, I’ll attempt to answer two questions: (i) Who was Peres and (ii) why is he worth remembering?
Peres served twice as Prime Minister of Israel, twice as Interim Prime Minister and he served a seven-year term as President (Israel’s ninth). It goes without saying, therefore, that Peres was a giant of Israeli politics.
Perhaps more poignantly, having been born in Poland in 1923, and aged 24 when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, Peres was considered to be the last link to Israel’s founding fathers. His recent death, in that sense, closes a once living chapter of history.
But Peres’ legacy, and that of Israel’s founding fathers more generally, will live on. During his incredible five decades of public service, Peres strove for a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, helping to secure the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, Peres was serving as Foreign Minister when the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty was signed in 1994, bringing an end to 46 years of conflict between Israel and Jordan.
The 1993 Oslo Accords were a significant milestone in the Arab-Israeli Conflict because they established the Palestinian peoples’ right to self-determination and the recognition of Israel’s right to exist by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in addition to creating the Palestinian Authority, which to this day exercises a level of self-government over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, the agreement was highly controversial and Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister, was assassinated for his role in endorsing the Oslo Accords.
“Security,” said that great Roman orator Cicero, “is the highest law,” and throughout his public service Peres strove to preserve Israel’s right to exist and to shield his people from harm. For example, when serving as Minister of Defence in 1976, Peres helped organize the Entebbe rescue operation in response to the hijacking of an Air France plane by Palestinian and German terrorists, despite the reluctance of the-then Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), to use force. Five Israeli commanders were wounded in the operation and one – Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu – was killed. Of the 106 hostages taken, 102 were rescued.
In 1996 Peres founded the Peres Centre for Peace, the objective of which is to promote peace in the Middle East through socio-economic development; to this day the Centre organizes joint and cooperative enterprises between Arabs and Israelis in the fields of economy, culture, education, healthcare, agriculture and media.
As is the case with virtually all historical figures, Peres has attracted as much praise as he has indignation, both inside and outside of Israel. With a political career spanning over half a century, though, this is hardly surprising. Given that Peres was vehemently lambasted by both Israel’s far left and far right (the former maintaining that Peres was a hawk; the latter maintaining that Peres was a dove), he must have been doing something right.
for many, the loss of Peres is like the loss of a guiding father
Throughout his public life it can be said that Peres’ underlying goal was to secure Israel’s place in a dynamic but otherwise hostile world, and, particularly in his later years, to strive for peace and stability through negotiated settlements. As the last link to the founding of Israel, and a politician with over five decades of experience handling the Arab-Israeli Conflict, his recent death inevitably adds to the instability in the region; for many, the loss of Peres is like the loss of a guiding father.
At home Peres is celebrated as one of the founders of Israel’s technology sector. Indeed, he was the first Israeli Prime Minister to have a website, and is said to have had a passionate interest in nanotechnology and brain research. Israel being a leading technology researcher in the region is a tribute to Peres’ legacy.
And what of Peres the man? Peres married Sonya Gelman in May 1945 and together they had three children: Tsiki; Yoni; and Nehemia. In the 1950s, Peres discovered that he was related to the American actress and film star Lauren Baccall. Outside of politics, Peres was a lifelong writer of prose, poetry and music, and he sustained an avid interest in social media, for which he earned the moniker ‘social media president’. Peres was also a talented linguist; speaking Polish, French, English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Peres now lies in the Great Leaders of the Nation section of Mount Herzl, Israel’s national and memorial cemetery. His legacy, though, will live on in the decades and centuries to come, and will hopefully help secure lasting peace in the Middle East, such is the lasting value of his public career.