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October 7, 2016  RSS feed
World News

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Peres remembered as founding father, peace seeker

(L-R) Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin presenting their Nobel Peace Prize certificates in Oslo, Norway, 1994. 
Photo courtesy of Government Press Office (L-R) Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin presenting their Nobel Peace Prize certificates in Oslo, Norway, 1994. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office JERUSALEM (JTA) – When Israeli and world leaders gathered atop Mount Herzl on Friday, Sept. 30, to say goodbye to Shimon Peres, Israel’s last founding father, many offered their visions of the peace that eluded the former president and prime minister.

President Barack Obama called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ presence in the front row “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”

“[Peres] believed the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians, too, had a state of their own,” Obama said. “The region is going through a chaotic time. Threats are ever-present. And yet, he did not stop dreaming and he did not stop working. … Now the work of peacemaking is in the hands of Israel’s next generation and its friends.”

President Barack Obama viewing the coffin of Shimon Peres after speaking during his funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, Sept. 30. 
Photo by Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama viewing the coffin of Shimon Peres after speaking during his funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, Sept. 30. Photo by Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images Before the funeral ceremony began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas shook hands beneath jumbo screens flashing photos of Peres over the years. The two leaders have not formally met since 2010, during a failed round of peace talks.

In Netanyahu’s emotional eulogy he described Peres as engaging in “nearly nightlong discussions” about which came first – peace or security. Netanyahu thought security and Peres peace, he said.

“We were both right,” Netanyahu concluded. “Peace will not be achieved other than by permanently preserving our power. But power is not an end in itself. It is not the real power. It’s a means to an end. The goal is to ensure our national existence and coexistence.”

Peres, who died at age 93 on Sept. 28, was long a hawkish defender of Israeli security. He played a major role in establishing the country’s defense industry, nuclear deterrence and settlement enterprise.

But he was among the first of Israel’s leaders to warn about the threat posed by continued control of the West Bank and became a leading advocate of territorial compromise for peace with the Palestinians.

Only after his election as president in 2007 did Peres receive the kind of regard in Israel that he enjoyed internationally. Among the estimated 4,000 mourners who gathered at Israel’s national cemetery were dozens of foreign dignitaries, including President Francois Hollande of France, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Prince Charles and former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

Former President Bill Clinton, who brokered the Olso Accords that Peres helped spearhead in an effort to make peace with the Palestinians, referenced John Lennon’s peace anthem “Imagine” in his eulogy.

“Shimon could imagine all the people living in the world in peace,” Clinton said. “In his honor I ask that we remember his luminous smile and imagine.”

“Shimon Peres embodied the spirit of the Israeli people,” Vice President Joe Biden said days later at a memorial service for Peres in Washington, DC. “He was, in my opinion, the conscience and the soul of the Israeli people.”

Biden spoke of his 45-year friendship with Peres and how they both shared a love of poetry. He told those gathered, “At a time when the currents of bigotry and anger and isolationism are on the rise, when too many are quick to cast blame on the outsider, on the other, and the promise of peace might seem like a distant dream, it’s my hope, my sincere hope, that each of us continues to hold Shimon’s memory very close.”

“In all of us who continue to hear his voice in our ears, that deliberate irresistible rumble urging us on; ‘Dream big,’ he implores us still, ‘make the world a better place,’” the vice president said.

The phoenix of Israeli politics

Peres continually reinvented himself as the country changed. He began his career in the Defense Ministry and was the architect of Israel’s nuclear program, but in his later years Peres was more closely identified with the quest for peace with the Palestinians. He was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo Accords, the landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and was present on the White House lawn for its signing in 1993.

Though he served as prime minister three times without ever winning an election outright, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that has yet to materialize, Peres emerged late in life as Israel’s beloved elder statesmen and a rare figure capable of uniting a fractious society.

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Peres became Israel’s global ambassador for peace, predicting the emergence of a “new Middle East” in which conflict was supplanted by shared prosperity. Elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2007, talk of peace pervaded nearly every speech he gave. Well into his 90s, Peres still insisted he would live to see the day when peace would come.

Peace, however, doomed his political career. The Oslo Accords debilitated Peres’ Labor Party, which fell from power in 2001 with the outbreak of the second intifada.

As president, Peres rose again, this time as Israel’s wise old man. Free to rise above the political fray, Peres trumpeted Israel’s technological achievements and articulated its hopes for a brighter future. More than anything, he became a symbol of the country’s resilience – able to survive, thrive and remain optimistic – no matter the challenges.

“Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” Netanyahu said shortly after Peres’ death. “He set his gaze on the future. He did so much to protect our people. He worked to his last days for peace and a better future for all.”

From Poland to Israel

Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland, in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Tel Aviv in 1934. At 20, he became the head of a Labor Zionist youth group, through which he met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister.

In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, managing arms purchases and personnel. After Israel gained independence the following year, he continued working in the Defense Ministry, becoming its youngest-ever director-general in 1952 at 29. In that capacity he expanded Israeli arms purchases from France and later helped manage the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He also founded Israel’s arms production industry and led efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, becoming deputy defense minister. He would serve in the Knesset for an as-yet unmatched total of 48 years.

After serving in several minor ministerial positions, Peres became defense minister in 1974 under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres was a territorial hawk, opposing early proposals for West Bank withdrawal and supporting settlement expansion. When Rabin resigned amid scandal in 1977, Peres briefly became acting prime minister, then lost the post when the Alignment party was defeated in the 1977 election.

Peace accords

Peres was a member of a variety of different political parties through the years and served in a variety of roles, including Prime Minister from 1985-86 and foreign minister under other administrations.

After Rabin regained power in 1992, Peres became the architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The agreement gave the Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival,” Peres said upon accepting the prize. “A Middle East without wars, without enemies, without ballistic missiles, without nuclear warheads.”

After Rabin was assassinated the following year, Peres became acting prime minister, but lost the post again in a close race with Likud’s Netanyahu. Following his defeat in ‘96, he founded the Peres Center for Peace, which runs programs aimed at regional reconciliation.

Peres remained in the Labor Party through 2005, twice regaining the chairmanship and serving another stint as foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In 2007, year he won a race for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency. As president, Peres stayed mostly above the political fray, though he conducted secret negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011, culminating in a peace deal that Netanyahu’s government rejected.

President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor in 2012.

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