The former Israeli prime minister and president has died aged 93by David Patrikarakos / September 28, 2016 / Leave a comment
The last of the pioneers is gone. Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and President of Israel, died today at the age of 93. He was the last in the generation of men and women that founded the state in 1948. Unlike his contemporaries, men like Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, Peres was not a fighter. He never served in the army during the War of Independence, in fact, he never wore a uniform in his life. In a country where the military sits at the centre of public life—and the nation’s consciousness—this made him almost unique among those to reach its highest office.
While Sharon and Rabin fought, Peres thought. He provided the intellectual ballast to the pointed spear of Israel’s early drive to statehood. First, Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion made him responsible for procuring arms and vehicle parts for the Haganah, the underground Jewish army that eventually became the Israeli Defence Forces. At only 29, just eight years after Israel’s founding, he was appointed Director-General of the Defence Ministry. He took his job seriously and was instrumental in making Israel’s “spear” as potent as any army’s in the world, becoming the driving force behind the secret quest to develop nuclear weapons.
He convinced France to sell Israel a nuclear reactor in 1957 that became the basis of its nuclear weapons programme, based in Dimona in the Negev desert. To this day, Israel does not openly admit their possession, preferring a posture of “strategic ambiguity” summed up in a phrase told to me several years ago by a former Presidential spokesperson (and now Israel’s ambassador to the UK) “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”
Peres was integral to the Israeli state from its inception—its twists and turns, its victories and defeats, seemed written into the lines and wrinkles of his face—until he retired from his last political post as President in 2014 aged 90. Before that he had been Prime Minister three times, foreign minister for another three, as well as defence minister.
While absolutely committed to Israel’s defence, Peres also understood the need for peace with the Palestinians, which, he ultimately realized, could not be achieved without statehood for them as well as Israel. His efforts would eventually result in the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader, Yassar Arafat, for producing the Oslo Accords setting out a roadmap to peace between the two sides.
His career filled with triumphs also contained its share of failures. Though Prime Minister three times he was known as a serial election loser. His first stint as PM was only in an acting capacity in 1977 when Rabin, in his first term, was forced to stand down owing to a scandal. He lost the general election seven months later—giving the right-wing Likud Party its first ever victory under Menachim Begin. He suffered more general election defeats, before failing to win a majority in the 1984 election and being able to govern only through an alliance with the hated Likud. His third time came when he again replaced Rabin, after his assassination. He duly went on to lose the subsequent election.
In later life, Peres came to stand for more than just party politics: he became the physical embodiment—on the Israeli side—of the Two-State Solution. The man who had decades earlier made Israel a nuclear power became one of his nation’s most outspoken proponents of peace, both between Israel and the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours.
As a Two-State Solution looks increasingly remote, buried under the weight of Israeli settlements and Palestinian corruption, his legacy needs to be heeded more than ever. As Prime Minister Benjaim Netanyahu, a long time political enemy, spoke—hypocritically—of his love and respect for Peres, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party surged ahead in the polls. Yesh Atid, a rare voice of moderation in Israeli politics, still believes peace is possible between the two peoples. It calls for more peace talks; it won’t give up on the Two-State Solution.
Netanyahu’s position is precarious. Despite his election win a year ago, Israelis may well be tiring of his intransigence and looking to Lapid for a moderate alternative. If that is the case: Peres’s legacy will indeed live on. And he will, finally, have been able to defeat Netanyahu.