Israel just lost the last tie to its founding fathers. Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, three-time prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, minister of transportation, minister of immigrant absorption and director general of the Ministry of Defense, died on Wednesday at the age of 93.
Peres was a protégé of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, serving as the Defense Ministry’s director general at just 29 years of age.
He was born in Poland in 1923 and moved to Palestine with his family in 1934, beginning his Israeli education in Tel Aviv. At age 15, he transferred to an agricultural school.
Peres was one of the founders of the Alumot kibbutz and was elected head of the Israeli Zionist youth movement HaNoar Ha’Oved at a time when he was one of only two supporters of Mapai, Ben-Gurion’s party, while serving on the movement’s secretariat. That success quickly came to the attention of Ben-Gurion, who started taking a keen interest in the young man.
In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, the pre-state military organization, and Ben-Gurion put him in charge of arms purchases. After the War of Independence, Peres worked for the Ministry of Defense, soon becoming its deputy director general, then director general. At the time, Israel was a nation of young people, and having a 29-year-old head of the Defense Ministry did not seem unusual, as it would today.
In that job, Peres forged Israel’s close defense relationship with France, ensuring that the Jewish state was able to buy modern fighter jets. He was a key player in the discussions that led to the Suez War of 1956, in which Britain and France mounted a joint military campaign against Egypt. Peres was also instrumental in gaining French aid in the construction of the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona (believed to be the place where Israel developed its atomic weapons).
In 1959, Peres entered politics as a member of the Knesset in Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party and became deputy defense minister to Ben-Gurion, then the defense minister. Peres remained in the Knesset from 1959 until 2007, when he was elected president of Israel, a position he held until 2014, when his term ended.
While Ben-Gurion served as prime minister, Peres remained tied to him. He was the man who got things done, such as equipping the Israeli army and air force.
While not as glamorous as the military exploits of Moshe Dayan or Yitzhak Rabin, Peres’s accomplishments were every bit as important to the new state. His biggest exploits, such as the construction of the reactor in Dimona, remain shrouded in secrecy, even today.
After Ben-Gurion retired and Peres was on his own, he found himself in a rivalry with Rabin for much of his political career. Peres had a hard time competing with the war hero of the 1967 war. Twice, Peres lost the leadership of the Labor Party to Rabin, but he twice served under him, first as defense minister, then as foreign minister.
And twice Peres was suddenly called upon to replace Rabin as prime minister: when Rabin was forced to resign as the result of a minor scandal and then after Rabin’s assassination.
The first time, Peres outflanked Rabin from the right, allowing some settlers to establish outposts in the West Bank. The second time, Peres outflanked Rabin from the left, initiating the Oslo peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization. (This was something he did in secret, partially behind Rabin’s back, but Peres later persuaded Rabin to embrace the process.)
Peres was never able to win elections. Though he served as prime minister three times, he was never elected to the office. In the 1997 election for the post, soon after Rabin’s assassination, it was a shock when Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.
There were always crazy rumors about Peres. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was widely believed that he secretly owned the Israeli battery company Tadiran, one of the largest companies in the country at that time, though there was no evidence to suggest this was accurate. It was also claimed that Peres lived extravagantly, but in fact the opposite was true.
In 2007, Peres became Israel’s ninth president after Moshe Katzav, who had defeated him in the election, was forced to resign after being charged with rape.
As president, Peres finally came to receive the respect and acknowledgement for his achievements he had never seemed to get in the past. To the world, President Peres appeared to represent all that was once good about Israel. In 1994, he won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
I met Peres and heard him speak several times over the years. In the summer of 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, he spoke to a group I was leading in Israel. He gave a 30-minute extemporaneous speech on the implications of the Soviet Union’s demise that was both brilliant and clear.
Peres always looked to the future. Somehow, in his long career, he managed to simultaneously represent both the past and the future. It is hard to think of anyone else in Israel who had his unimpeachable integrity and strong sense of continuity.