From the Newsweek Archives (1977): Shimon Peres, 'An Israeli Innovator'

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Shimon Peres, shown here in an archive portrait from 1981, died on Wednesday morning local time at a Tel Aviv area hospital. GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty

Shimon Peres—former president of Israel and a Nobel Peace Prize winner—died Wednesday morning local time at a Tel Aviv area hospital at the age of 93. Peres' name has appeared in the pages (and on the webpages) of Newsweek hundreds of times during his decades as a public figure in Israel. In 1977, for example, we wrote about Peres' "taste for innovation" and his "Kennedyesque qualities."

"An Israeli Innovator"

By Kim Willenson with Milan J. Kubic in Jerusalem

We are the Kennedy generation in Israeli politics—a generation of dialogue rather than rigid ideology.
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Shimon Peres, 1966

The man most likely to succeed Yitzhak Rabin has a number of Kennedyesque qualitites. Shimon Peres has a finely tuned mind, a furious impatience with old ideas that no longer work and a pragmatic determination to find new concepts that do work. "I am a great beleiver in the need for inventiveness, in new departures," Peres told Newsweek's Milan J. Kubic earlier this year. "My political experience has been that if you have two unacceptable alternatives, the way out is to select a third one that nobody has thought about."

Even Peres's friends worry about his taste for innovation. "He has a tendency to adventurousness," says former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who endorsed Peres for Prime Minister in his losing race with Rabin last February. Some of his critics charge that Peres is a stubborn hawk who cannot be flexible enough to make peace with the Arabs. Others accuse him of having no fixed beliefs. "He is too smooth, too clever by half," says an Israeli Cabinet minister. "Peres is all tactics. You sense in him too much pragmatism and not enough of a moral anchor." Peres himself has no doubts about his moral anchor. He believes most of all in the independence of Israel, so much so that he is even somewhat uncomfortable in an alliance with the U.S.

Discussing terms for a Mideast settlement, the Israeli Defense Minister told Kubic: "We cannot return to boudaries so vulnerable that Israel could not defend herself. I am talking about the coast where two-thirds of us live. I am afraid that if we were pushed into a strip of land 10 to 12 miles wide we would have to become a satellite of another nation that could guarantee our security. That means we cannot return to the 1967 borders—not for the sake of geography, but for the sake of independence."

Iron Rule: Peres is a disciplined intellectual. He writes all of his own speeches and makesan iron rule of reading—between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.—books that have nothing to do with his work. So far this year, he has plowed through several books including John Dean's "Blind Ambition" (in English) and the Bible (in French). "He is the only Cabinet member who reads and probably the only Israeli politician who knows that Delacroix was the illegitimate son of Talleyrand," says an Israeli professor. Peres can be insufferable at times. "He has a certain arrogance," says a U.S. official who knows him. "He can be abrasive. He can be scathing in debate. He can be curt and sharp-tongued, and he is impatient with his colleagues." Once, while meeting with American visitors, Peres became irritated with Israeli Air Force Comdr. Binyamin Peled and admonished him: "Talk up, talk up—if you have anything to say."

Peres was born in Poland (the family's original name was Persky) and came to Tel Aviv in 1934, when he was 11. A socialist, Peres showed early flair as a political organizer and became an aide to Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. During the war of independence, he commanded Israel's fledgling navy and then became one of the country's chief arms buyers in France and the U.S. In that capacity, he earned the resentment of then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir by dealing with foreign sources behind her back. When Ben-Gurion walked out of the ruling Mapai party in 1965, Peres loyally followed him into the political wilderness, even though he had a wife and three children to support.But after the Six Day War in 1967, < peres engineered the return of the Ben-Gurion faction to powert as part of the new Labor Party. In 1974, after narrowly losing the nomination for Prime Minister to Rabin, he became Defense Minister.

Peres has had many successes in that post. He has presided over a tripling of the defense budget. He was one of the prime movers behind the rescue mission to Entebbe. And he invented the "good fence" policy that has won Israel useful Christian allies in southern Lebanon. But over the years some of Peres's ideas haven't worked out so well. In the early 1960s, he urged Israel to neutralize Egypt by "building up Ethopia" militarily, and lately he has been pressing for the establishment of a relationship with South Africa.

'Bitsuist': Like Israel's native-born sabras, Peres's pragmatism and thrust have earned him the reputation of bitsuist—a doer. But like many immigrants from Eastern Europe, he is preoccupied with the ideals of Zionism and has little understanding of Israel's Arab neighbors. Last year Peres predicted that Arab moderates would win the municipal elections in the occupied West Bank; instead militants swept the board. He still does not regard the establishment of a Palestinian state as a top-priority matter. "Peres never felt the Arabs were Israel's No. 1 problem," says and Insraeli general.

As Peres sees it, full independence is Israel's most important goal, and he has pressed hard for the establishment of a national arms industry to reduce the country's reliance on the U.S. "Peres will implement the Zionist ideals," says a high-ranking politician. "The problems of Jews will come first, and if the Arabs don't like it, too bad. His mandate will be to keep Israel alive and strong, and to that end he will act dovish, hawkish or in any other way necessary.

From the Newsweek Archives (1977): Shimon Peres, 'An Israeli Innovator' | World