Two years after death, Peres remembered as visionary who strived to unite nation
Youngest passenger from Entebbe hostage rescue hails the late leader's role in organizing the operation: 'Because of you I built a family'
Speakers at Friday’s memorial ceremony marking the second anniversary of the death of Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president and two-time prime minister, praised the late leader as man who aimed to unite the nation, strived for peace, and sought to strengthen the moral character of the Jewish state.
Peres dreamed of “the image of the state before it was established and afterwards become one of its best builders, and one of the most prominent of its visionaries,” said President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke at the event at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, where Peres is buried in the Great Leaders of the Nation section.
“Some ask how much our country really belongs to everyone, is really good for everyone, really wants all of its citizens,” Rivlin continued. But Peres “always [knew how to explain] how much we all are connected to each other, how responsible we are for each other.”
The event, which was organized by the Peres Center for Peace, was also attended by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog.
“You were so optimistic,” Rivlin said of Peres. “Keep showing our good side [to the world], continue to be an advocate for all of us.”
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who also served as a two-time prime minister, passed away two years ago on September 28, 2016, at the age of 93. Peres was often unpopular in the country as a politician, but transformed his image after becoming president, relishing the role of elder statesman.
Throughout his life, Peres dedicated much of his efforts to promote coexistence and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, he was a man of defense and security, setting up some of Israel’s most important military and strategic assets.
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.
Peres served as defense minister during the July 4, 1976 raid on Entebbe, in which the IDF rescued the hostages taken captive on June 27, 1976 by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Air France jet from Tel Aviv to Paris. The plane was diverted to Uganda, where the hijackers were welcomed by dictator Idi Amin. The prime minister at the time was Peres’s Labour party rival Yitzhak Rabin.
Shai Gross, the youngest hostage in Entebbe during the operation, spoke at Friday’s memorial service as well. “I was only six years old then, and today I stand here thanks to one brave man, Shimon Peres, and I want to thank him,” said Gross.
“Because of you I built a family and my eldest son who loved you so much today serves in one of the IDF commando units, and because of you I serve as an emissary of Israeli society in many forums, and talk about the tremendous courage you and Yitzhak Rabin displayed in that operation.”
“There are not enough words to describe the strength of courage and sharpness of the decision and the impressive implementation of the operation to save Jews and Israelis wherever they are, and I do my best to serve as living testimony to this heroic act,” he said. “We miss your leadership so much today, especially today.”
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.
Long before his role in the Oslo negotiations, Peres was also known as an architect of Israel’s nuclear program. The country is now believed to be the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, although it has never acknowledged this.
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.
“[Peres] reiterated time and again that Israel’s strength lies in its respect of every person created in the image [of God],” said Zvia Walden, the late president’s daughter, according to the Walla news site. “He showed the same capacity for dedication in his efforts to build the [Dimona nuclear] reactor as he did to establish institutions that helped guaranteed the future of those who were destined to deal with endless difficulties.”
Shortly after Peres’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Dimona nuclear facility would be renamed for the late president.
Two years 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.