Replacing Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers

Replacing Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers

Outgoing president was first elected to the Knesset in 1959, served 65 years in public office

Equipped with an iPad, then-president Shimon Peres prepares to answer questions posed to him on Facebook, March 2014. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Equipped with an iPad, then-president Shimon Peres prepares to answer questions posed to him on Facebook, March 2014. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

AFP — President Shimon Peres, whose successor was being chosen by the Knesset Tuesday, is the last of Israel’s founding fathers and a hawk-turned-dove whose international aura will be sorely missed by many Israelis.

Now 90, Peres has stood at the forefront of Israeli politics for 65 years, demonstrating resilience in the face of innumerable challenges.

A Nobel laureate and elder statesman who has carved out a reputation as a peacemaker, Peres has taken advantage of his largely ceremonial post to push a political message of peace, putting him at odds with Israel’s right-wing premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

With a political pedigree eclipsing any rival, Peres has held just about every major office in Israel in a career spanning nearly seven decades.

But, despite a career forged within Israel’s Labor party, Peres has not always been a man of peace.

Considered a party hawk from the start, Peres was quick to back the first Jewish settlements to be set up in the occupied West Bank in the 1970s when he was serving as defense minister.

And during his second tenure as prime minister, when he was also holding the defense portfolio, he oversaw the air force’s bombing of the Lebanese town of Qana, killing 106 civilians during a raid in April 1996.

Born in Vishneva, Poland, in 1923, Peres — then known as Szymon Perski — emigrated to Palestine at the age of 11 and joined the Haganah, the militia that fought in the 1948 War of Independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

A member of parliament since 1959, Peres headed the Labor party from 1977 until Yitzhak Rabin took over in 1992. He was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 and again in 1995-1996.

Once a firm opponent of any compromise with hostile Arab states, Peres says he was converted after 1977, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

And in 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Rabin and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his key role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Although widely admired abroad, Peres was something of an electoral liability, suffering defeat in general elections in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1996.

He served twice as premier, and has also held the foreign, defense, finance, information and transport portfolios, but never led Labor to victory.

However, he gained a reputation for tenacity in the face of many challenges, picking himself up after every blow.

Israel owes to Peres its powerful armament and aeronautical industry. An architect of Israel’s military cooperation with France in the 1950s, he is considered the “father” of Israel’s nuclear program.

When he was elected as Israel’s ninth head of state in 2007, it was a crowning triumph in the career of an octogenarian whose fortunes had reached a nadir two years earlier when he lost the Labor leadership and left the party.

And he has won plaudits in Israel for restoring the prestige of the presidency following the scandal surrounding former incumbent Moshe Katsav, who is serving seven years in prison on two counts of rape and other sexual offenses.

Just two months shy of his 91st birthday, Peres is a man who takes care of his health. He once said the secret to his longevity lay in daily gymnastics, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.

“Everybody eats three times a day. You eat three times a day and you become fat. If you will read three times a day, you will become wise. Better to be wise than fat,” he told AFP in a December 2012 interview, saying he slept no more than four or five hours a night.

And even as the end of his term looms, he has shown no let up, traveling to the Vatican on June 10 to meet and pray with Pope Francis and his “partner for peace” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

For most Israelis, Peres’s departure from office will signify the end of a era.

“Shimon Peres was an important president due to his special status in capitals around the world and because of the dignity that he restored at home in the aftermath of the Katsav affair,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Sunday in an expression of widely felt regret.

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