WITH THE passing of Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday at age 93, Israel suffers the loss of a lion, the last of the founding generation of leaders. Mr. Peres came to Palestine from a village in what is now Belarus when he was 12. He became a young kibbutznik, a lieutenant to founding father David Ben-Gurion, a Knesset member, a deputy defense minister, an acting prime minister, and minister of defense, foreign affairs, transportation, communications, immigrant absorption, information and finance. He was twice prime minister and, near the end, the nation's president. Through a career that spanned this tumultuous period — through years of siege, bloodshed and building a nation — Mr. Peres never abandoned hope that, with enough sweat and tears, Israel would live in peace.
The young Shimon Persky once described the Jewish world of his birth as similar to a voyage in a subway train — "you travel underground, you don't see the scenery, and nobody sees you in the train." Nevertheless, with an eloquent tongue and quick mind, he excelled in school. He arrived in Palestine in 1935 pale and introverted, but within a few years had heartily embraced the Labor movement. He worked the land at a youth village, impressing friends with a fondness for literature and history that was, at times, otherworldly. One friend told biographer Michael Bar-Zohar that "when he spoke to us we felt as if we were right now in London and had met Churchill an hour before."
Mr. Peres did not fight in the trenches in Israel’s war of independence, but rather scoured the world for arms, often working in an office separated only by a sheet of plywood from Ben-Gurion. Later, he helped found Israel’s aircraft industry and, using tortuous and sometimes illegal methods — because no one would sell weapons to Israel openly — he snapped up tanks, aircraft, torpedo boats and spare parts. He opened the doors for Israel to the French arms industry in the 1950s. This was followed by an even more spectacular and secret achievement, the creation of the Israeli atomic bomb, an unstated but powerful deterrent.
Mr. Peres was a security hawk at a time when Israel’s enemies were its Arab neighbors. But the dynamic changed somewhat after Israel made peace with Egypt in the Camp David Accords of 1979. When the Palestinian uprising broke out in 1987, Mr. Peres realized that, while the Palestinians were not an existential threat, Israel would never live in peace without settling with them. Mr. Peres had been shrewd, secretive and scheming in politics, but he and his longtime rival, Yitzhak Rabin, made a fateful decision to work together upon returning to power in 1992. The next year, a surprising back-channel negotiation with the Palestine Liberation Organization led to the Oslo Accords, offering the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was a crowning triumph for Mr. Peres, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Mr. Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
It also marked a metamorphosis for Mr. Peres, who spoke of peace fervently and with no less eloquence than in his school days. He found great respect as Israel’s president, his final stop in a long journey, but his dream of Israel at peace, pursued with such determination and vision, eluded him to the last.
Read more on this topic: