At 29, Shimon Peres served as director of Israel’s Defense Ministry and is credited with arming Israel’s military almost from scratch. He then developed Israel’s nuclear program, launched a political career stretching more than 60 years and became president at 83. In recent years, he focused on promoting Israeli innovation and technology.
At every corner of Israel’s tumultuous history, Shimon Peres was there.
He was a young aide to the nation’s founding fathers when the country declared independence in 1948, and he played a key role in turning Israel into a military power. He was part of the negotiations that sealed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, garnering a Nobel Peace Prize. He was welcomed like royalty in world capitals.
But only at the end of a political career stretching more than 60 years did Peres finally win the widespread admiration of his own people that had eluded him for so long. He died at 93 early Wednesday at the hospital where he had been treated for the past two weeks.
Peres began a new chapter at age 83, assuming the nation’s presidency following a scandal that forced his predecessor to step down. The job cemented Peres’ transformation from down-and-dirty political operator to elder statesman.
“After such a long career, let me just say something: My appetite to manage is over. My inclination to dream and to envisage is greater,” Peres told The Associated Press in an interview on July 15, 2007, moments before he was sworn in as president.
He said he would not allow his age, or the constraints of a largely ceremonial office, to slow him down. “I’m not in a hurry to pass away,” Peres said. “The day will come that I shall not forget to pass away. But until then, I’m not going to waste my life.”
A World-Class Statesman
As president, Peres tirelessly jetted around the world to represent his country at conferences, ceremonies and international gatherings.
He was a fixture at the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where he was treated like a rock star as the world’s rich and powerful listened breathlessly to his every word, on topics ranging from Mideast peace to nanotechnology to the wonders of the human brain.
He also became Israel’s moderate face, seeking to reassure the international community that Israel seeks peace.
It was his 1994 Nobel Prize that established Peres’ man-of-peace image. He proudly displayed the prize — which he shared with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — on the desk of his presidential office.
As foreign minister, Peres secretly brokered the historic Oslo interim peace accords with the Palestinians, signed at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993.
Accepting the award, he told assembled dignitaries that “war, as a method of conducting human affairs, is in its death throes, and the time has come to bury it.”
Despite the assassination of Rabin, the breakdown of peace talks, a second Palestinian uprising in 2000, wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and Netanyahu’s continued re-elections, Peres maintained his insistence that peace was right around the corner.
“I’m sure I shall see peace in my lifetime. Even if I should have to extend my life for a year or two, I won’t hesitate,” he said in a 2013 interview marking his 90th birthday.
Seven Decades of Service to Israel
Peres was born Shimon Perski on Aug. 2, 1923 in Vishniev, then part of Poland and now in Belarus. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his family, where he changed his surname to Peres. Relatives who remained in Poland, including his grandfather, a prominent rabbi, were killed when Nazis set a synagogue on fire during the Holocaust. Peres often spoke lovingly of his grandfather in speeches. The actress Lauren Bacall was a cousin.
Still in his 20s, Peres rose quickly through the ranks of Israel’s pre-state leadership, and served as a top aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, after independence in 1948. Peres once called Ben-Gurion “the greatest Jew of our time.”
At 29, he served as director of Israel’s Defense Ministry, and is credited with arming Israel’s military almost from scratch. He later worked with the French to develop Israel’s nuclear program, which today is widely believed to include a large arsenal of bombs.
Still, he suffered throughout his political career from the fact that he never wore an army uniform or fought in a war.
Peres was elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1959, serving in nearly all major Cabinet posts over his long career. As finance minister, he imposed an emergency plan to halt triple-digit inflation in the 1980s. He also was an early supporter of the movement to return to Judea and Samaria, a position he would later abandon.
As president, Peres cultivated an image as a grandfatherly figure, frequently inviting groups of children and teens to the presidential residence. He embraced social media and promoted Israel’s high-tech industry in meetings with top officials at Google, Facebook and other major companies.
Peres also launched his “President’s Conference,” which became an annual high-powered gathering in Jerusalem of artists, thinkers and business leaders from around the world.The gathering drew some of the world’s most powerful personalities.
He also exhibited a humorous side. When he left the presidency in 2014, he appeared in a video his granddaughter produced where he jokingly tried out new jobs including a supermarket cashier, gas station attendant and standup comedian — peppering his comments with puns and visionary slogans.
Asked about his secret to longevity, Peres said he never dwelled on the past.
“What happened until now is over, unchangeable. I’m not going to spend time on it. So I am really living in the future,” he said. “I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better.”
Peres’ wife Sonya died in 2011. He leaves a daughter, Tsvia Valdan, a university professor, and two sons, Nehemia, a leading Israeli venture capitalist, and Yonatan, a veterinarian.
Peres represented “the essence of Israel itself,” President Barack Obama said.
“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” he said. “A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever.”