Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, was extolled by world leaders as a man of peace and for his dedication to coexistence and determined fight for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, he was undeniably a man of defense and security, setting up some of Israel’s most important military and strategic assets.
His legacy encompasses both, representing a deep connection to Israel’s past as well as a yearning to help it face the challenges of the future. That was how Peres, a former president and two-time prime minister, was remembered Wednesday and Thursday as part of a series of events marking a year since his death on September 28, 2016, at the age of 93.
Peres’s passing last year led to an outpouring of tributes from leaders worldwide, many of whom also attended the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s funeral in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, speaking at the official state memorial for Peres at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, where he is buried in the Great Leaders of the Nation section, President Reuven Rivlin spoke of his predecessor as an incessant dreamer, and a determined leader.
“You never gave up on your daring beliefs and your belief in daring,” Rivlin said. Those words — belief and daring — describe your message to us all that history is written by those that know how to imagine new horizons, even from within the confines of a closed room.”
To many, Peres is synonymous with the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, for which he was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize, and his eponymous Center for Peace, which promotes dialogue and opportunities for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Rivlin said that Peres may have failed to see his dream of peace realized in his lifetime, but the dedication and determination that he had for working towards peace continued to inspire Israelis.
“We still have a huge amount to do,” Rivlin said emphatically, “but the path that you paved, the dream you fought to realize, the hopes that you determined to fulfill and your belief in them — will be with this nation for generations to come and you will continue to be a source of inspiration for us all.”
Three months before his passing, Peres joined with President Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lay the cornerstone for the establishment of the Israeli Innovation Center, set to open at the Peres Center in 2018.
On Wednesday morning, Rivlin opened the memorial events with a keynote address at a “Leadership and Innovation” conference in memory of Peres.
Rivlin called on industry leaders to bring Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israel’s burgeoning high-tech sector, which he said would help realize the Peres’ for the country.
“Everyone who is sitting here today has a responsibility to ensure that the Israeli innovation industry continues to be a pillar of fire lighting the way — this was the dream of my friend Shimon Peres. That was his belief, and now it is in our hands,” Rivlin said.
On Thursday, drawing on Peres’s contribution the country’s military capabilities, Rivlin said that in addition to a commitment to peace and coexistence, the late president’s legacy must also remind Israelis “that security and peace are two sides of the exact same coin.”
In a career spanning seven decades, Peres held nearly every major office in government, serving twice as prime minister and lastly as president from 2007 to 2014. Long before his role in the Oslo negotiations, Peres was also known as architect of Israel’s nuclear program, with the country now believed to be the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, although it has never acknowledged it.
“Even from the moment Israel was created, you understood in your wisdom that we need to be ready for everything,” Rivlin said. “There is no Israeli that does not owe you a debt of gratitude for your contribution to national security and above all, the establishment of the research institute in Dimona, that now carries your name.”
Shortly after Peres’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Dimona nuclear facility would be renamed for the late president.
When he was still in his 30s, during the 1950s, Peres played a key part in Israel’s pursuit of a nuclear capability at the urging of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He reached a secret agreement with France that led to the building of a nuclear reactor at Dimona, which went critical around 1962.
Israel is now estimated to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium at Dimona to arm between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, according to the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Chemi Peres, son of the late Shimon Peres and chairman of the Peres center, said that there was no contradiction between his father’s peace efforts and contribution to Israel’s military assets.
“While he fought to build the nuclear project in Dimona, he also fought against mountains and demons to make the impossible possible. It took courage to dream, and even more courage to achieve the dream and to see it become reality,” Chemi Peres said at the memorial service.
But Chemi Peres said his father’s “struggle for peace” required “even more courage than the sacrifice of war.”
A year ago, Peres’s funeral drew dozens of world leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, along with a 33-person delegation of American officials who made a six-hour stop in Israel for the ceremony.
This week, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who served as the peace envoy for the Middle East Quartet (a foursome of nations and international entities involved in mediating the Israeli–Palestinian peace process) while Peres was president, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger joined the memorial events.
Blair said at the ceremony that the country Peres wanted to create “was to be a gift to the world.”
“It drew upon the best of the Jewish character developed over the ages, sustained through pogroms, persecution and Holocaust, often battered but never subdued. This spirit is the spirit of striving,” Blair said. “He grasped completely the extraordinary potential there would be if Israel and the region were working together, not simply on security, but on economic advance, technological breakthrough and cultural reconciliation.”
At a separate memorial event on Wednesday night, Kissinger described Peres as “a pragmatist and an optimist. A soldier and a poet.”
Recalling his memories of a younger Peres, Kissinger, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s when Peres was defense minister, said that he and Peres were “comrades on a journey characterized by hopes and intentions, moments of elation and incremental on the way to disengagements — agreements with Egypt and Syria, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.”
Currently in Latin America as part of a 10-day trip to Argentina, Colombia and then the US, marking the first visit of an Israeli premier to South America, Prime Minister Netanyahu was unable to attend the memorial events.
Concluding Thursday’s ceremony, Chemi Peres quoted from the final chapter of his father’s memoir “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination and the Making of Modern Israel,” completed just weeks before his death and released this week.
“I was given about two and a half billion seconds and I decided to make use of each one of them in order to make a difference,” he read.
“I don’t regret any of my dreams,” Shimon Peres wrote. “My only regret is not having dreamed more.”
AFP contributed to this report.