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By: Dave Gordon
Remembered as a statesman, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the last link to Israel’s founding generation, Shimon Peres served Israel in integral roles, including Prime Minister and President of Israel, over a seventy-year political career.
Shimon Peres, originally named Szymon Perski, was born in 1923 in Wiszniew, Poland (now Vishnyeva, Belarus). His grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, greatly influenced his childhood. Himself a grandson of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, Rabbi Meltzer taught Peres Talmudic tractates, and planted the seeds for his religious faith. Peres was so adamant about keeping the laws that, as a young boy, he smashed a radio his parents were listening to on Shabbat. Another momentous experience came when he traveled with his father toRadin to receive a blessing from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – otherwise known as “the Chafetz Chaim.”
In 1934, Shimon and his family immigrated to Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv. He was lucky to have left Poland; most of his relatives who’d stayed behind in Wiszniew were murdered during the Shoah. In spite of the heartache in his family history, Mr. Peres made sure to heed his grandfather’s advice and always “stay a Jew”.
In Peres’ early twenties, he found work as a farmer and a shepherd, and aligned himself with the Zionist movement. In 1945, he married Sonya Gelman, with whom he had
Just prior to the War of Independence, Peres joined the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. He became a close aide to David Ben Gurion, while serving as Navy Director during the 1948 War of Independence. In 1952, a mere few years after Israel became a state, Peres became Deputy Director-General
of the Ministry of Defense. A year later, now Director-General, he was responsible for covert weapons acquisition by the nation. At just 29 years old, he became the youngest person to ever hold the position. He achieved great renown as he helped to build the budding country’s defenses. In fact, he’s credited with acquiring the Dassault Mirage III, a jet fighter from France, advanced for the time period that vastly improved Israel’s defense capabilities. In a similar capacity, Peres served as Director of the Defense Ministry’s delegation in the United States. While in America, he earned degrees in English, Economics and Business from New School and Harvard University.
In 1959, Mr. Peres was elected to the Knesset, where he helped Israel develop its ability to hold its own militarily. As Deputy Defense Minister, Peres negotiated with President John F. Kennedyfor the sale of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. This exchange was the first of many weapons sales to take place between Israel and America.
In the late 1960s, Peres also played a role in establishing the first new settlements in Judea and Samarea. In 1976, he convinced Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin against forcibly removing a Jewish outpost in Samaria. The two did differ on others issues, however, such as how to deal with the Air France hijacking of 248 passengers in 1976. Peres favored a military response, while Rabin wanted to pursue a diplomatic one. They ultimately agreed to follow through with Peres’ tactics. Operation Entebbe was successful in freeing most of the hostages held captive in Uganda, Africa. Sadly, though, three hostages, and one Israeli soldier – Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s brother, Yoni Netanyahu, were killed.
A year later, in 1977, Rabin stepped down as Prime Minister amid a foreign currency scandal involving his wife. Peres succeeded him as party leader in the lead up to elections. Though he lost that election, he wouldbecome Prime Minister in 1984, in a skillful arrangement with Yitzchak Shamir. Though Peres’ party, Alignment, garnered more votes than any other party, he was unable to cobble together a majority of coalition seats to support agovernment. He and Shamir, however, agreed to unite their parties – Alignment and Likud – for a stable partnership, with the provision that they’d split the Prime Minister position and each serve two years apiece.
During Peres’ tenure, he consulted with economists to stabilize growth, reign in spending, increase price and wage controls, privatize public companies, and shutter others that had faltered. At the same time, he brought in a new shekelcurrency that was pegged to the dollar. Peres other initiatives included encouraging technology corporations, such as Intel, Motorola, and IBM, to either set up headquarters in Israel or invest in the country.
Peres has been called a dove by some and a hawk by others – perhaps because he so badly wanted to achieve peace with his Arab neighbors, even while he built up Israel’s might against them. In 1993, Peres would again partner with Yitzhak Rabin. Together, in secret meetings with Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, they would carve out what would eventually become known the Oslo Accords, signed in conjunction with Bill Clinton, the US President at the time. The Accords were meant to pave the way to a cessation of belligerency from the PLO, and enable the ceding of Israeli-controlled land in the West Bank, which would eventually be overseen by the Palestinian government. The Accords won all three players – Peres, Rabin, and Arafat – Nobel Peace Prizes. “Two states can bring peace. The lack of two states can prevent peace. And nations without peace – peoplewithout peace – are going to live in a terrible tragedy,” Peres once told the media.
A year later, in 1994, as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister respectively, Peres and Rabin signed the peace accord with Jordan, bringing an end to 46 years of official war between the two countries.
In 1995, after Rabin was assassinated at a Tel Aviv peace rally, Peres succeeded him again, serving as Prime Minister for seven months, until losing the election to Benjamin Netanyahu. Soon afterward, Peres foundedthe Peres Center for Peace, which promoted tolerance and economic development across the ethnic and religious spectrum.
“If I’ve changed my policies, it’s because the situation has changed. I was a hawk, but when we could make peace I was a dove,” he told the New Yorker in 2002. That proved true again when, in 2005, Peres supported Ariel Sharon’s party, Kadima, and its “disengagement” plan from Gaza. The plan helped to evacuate some eight thousand Jewish residents from Gaza.
Indeed, Peres could be peaceful when the situation demanded it. He convinced Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak not to use force on Iran’s nuclear site in 2010. He also opposed Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility, Osiraq, in 1981. Still, he wasn’t above
saber-rattling. In 2006,he declared in response to Iran’s threat to wipe Israel off the map: “The President of Iran should remember
that Iran can also be wiped off the map.” He made this fierce statement on Army Radio, motivating Israeli soldiers.
Shimon Peres’ final governmental position was President of the State of Israel, which he held for a seven year term beginning in 2007. In his inaugural address, he noted: “I have seen Israel in its most difficult hours and also in moments of achievement and spiritual uplifting… If sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today the day seems suddenly grey, the President Israel has chosen will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding – because spring is waiting for us. The spring will definitely come.”
In order to better devote himself to the position of President, he resigned from his Knesset seat. He was its longest serving member to date, putting 50 years towards the effort.
Even in his 90s, Shimon did not stop working for Israel’s benefit. Earlier this year, he founded The Israel Innovation Center in the Arab neighborhood of Ajami, Jaffa. The organization encourages youth of all ethnicities to embrace technology. “Innovation enables dialogue between nations and between people. It will enable all young people – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – to engage in science and technology equally,” he said in a statement to the media. A man of great foresight, Peres knew instinctively that brainpower and science were keys to a thriving country. As he was known to say: “The Arabs have the numerical superiority; we have technological superiority. Technology will alwaysdefeat numbers.”
Tributes from Across the World
Shimon Peres died on Sept. 28, at the age 93, after suffering a stroke. His funeral, attended by four thousand mourners, and world leaders from 75 countries, was held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.
The speeches were beautiful and elaborate, unreservedly praising Peres. The former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, declared that Peres was “Israel’s indispensable man, a leader whose participation in the political arena was driven not by what would bring personal glory, but by what his country needed.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added. “Shimon lived a life of purpose… He soared to incredible heights. He was a great man of Israel; a great man of the world.” The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, also paid tribute, saying: “I was extremely lucky to have met this extraordinary man many times. And every time, I admired his courage, patriotism, wisdom, vision, and ability.” The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, proclaimed: “Peres will be remembered as a steadfast friend of India.” In his eulogy, President Barack Obama expressed similar sentiments: “I will always be grateful that I was able to call Shimon my friend,” he said.
Michael Bar Zohar, Peres’ biographer, noted that, as a young boy, the future Israeli Prime Minister was often bullied and beaten up in the schoolyard. After each bout, he’d quickly rise to his feet, insisting he would someday overcome his adversaries. This anecdote serves as something of a metaphor for his political life: Though initially losing five premiership campaigns, he continued to dream of victory, eventually reaching top leadership positions where he wouldmake a difference in a nation’s development.
Shimon Peres distinguished himself as a leader of our Jewish homeland even before it became known as Israel. His served his country for seven decades, making countless contributions –among them economic ingenuity, technological and military growth, and cooperative ventures with other nations.
Mr. Peres is rightly buried in the Great Leaders of the Nation section, between former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. We feel his loss keenly, having bid goodbye to a man of great vision and personality. What made him unique, perhaps, was his forbearance – knowing when to bide his time and knowing when to strike, knowing when to exude peace and knowing when to show his might. Leaders of such equanimity are hard to come by in today’s world and because of that we’ll deeply miss what we once had – a man of discipline and heart leading the land of Israel, fighting for its best interests and ours.