For­mer Is­raeli pres­i­dent dies at 93

No­bel Prize-win­ner had held nearly every im­por­tant of­fice in gov­ern­ment

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Aron Heller

JERUSALEM — Shi­mon Peres, a for­mer Is­raeli pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter whose life story mir­rored that of the Jewish state and who was cel­e­brated around the world as a No­bel Prize-win­ning vi­sion­ary who pushed his coun­try to­ward peace, has died, the Is­raeli news web­site YNet re­ported early to­day. He was 93.

Mr. Peres’ con­di­tion wors­ened fol­low­ing a ma­jor stroke two weeks ago.

In an un­prece­dented seven-decade po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Mr. Peres filled nearly every po­si­tion in Is­raeli pub­lic life and was cred­ited with lead­ing the coun­try through some of its most defin­ing mo­ments, from cre­at­ing its nu­clear ar­se­nal in the 1950s, to dis­en­tan­gling its troops from Lebanon and res­cu­ing its econ­omy from triple-digit in­fla­tion in the 1980s, to guid­ing a skep­ti­cal na­tion into peace talks with the Pales­tini­ans in the 1990s.

A pro­tege of Is­rael’s found­ing fa­ther David Ben-Gu­rion, he led the De­fense Min­istry in his 20s and spear­headed the devel­op­ment of Is­rael’s nu­clear pro­gram. He was first elected to par­lia­ment in 1959 and later held every ma­jor Cabi­net post — in­clud­ing de­fense, fi­nance and for­eign af­fairs — and served three brief stints as prime min­is­ter. His key role in the first Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace ac­cord earned him a No­bel Peace Prize and revered sta­tus as Is­rael’s most rec­og­niz­able fig­ure abroad.

And yet, for much of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer he could not par­lay in­ter­na­tional pres­tige into suc­cess in Is­raeli pol­i­tics, where he was branded as both a utopian dreamer and po­lit­i­cal schemer. He suf­fered a string of elec­toral de­feats: Com­pet­ing in five gen­eral elec­tions seek­ing the prime min­is­ter’s spot, he lost four and tied one.

He fi­nally se­cured the pub­lic ado­ra­tion that had long eluded him when he has cho­sen by par­lia­ment for a seven-year term as Is­rael’s cer­e­mo­nial pres­i­dent in 2007, tak­ing the role of el­der states­man.

Mr. Peres was cel­e­brated by doves and vil­i­fied by hawks for ad­vo­cat­ing far-reach­ing Is­raeli com­pro­mises for peace even be­fore he ne­go­ti­ated the first in­terim ac­cord with the Pales­tini­ans in 1993 that set into mo­tion a par­ti­tion plan that gave them lim­ited self-rule. That was fol­lowed by a peace ac­cord with neigh­bor­ing Jordan. But af­ter a fate­ful six-month pe­riod in 1995-1996 that in­cluded Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion, a spate of Pales­tinian sui­cide bomb­ings and Peres’ own elec­tion loss to the more con­ser­va­tive Benjamin Ne­tanyahu, the prospects for peace be­gan to evap­o­rate.

Rel­e­gated to the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness, he cre­ated his non-gov­ern­men­tal Peres Cen­ter for Peace, which raised funds for co­op­er­a­tion and devel­op­ment projects in­volv­ing Is­rael, the Pales­tini­ans and Arab na­tions. He re­turned to it at age 91 when he com­pleted his term as pres­i­dent.

Shi­mon Per­ski was born on Aug. 2, 1923, in Vish­neva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Pales­tine in 1934 with his im­me­di­ate fam­ily. Her grand­fa­ther and other rel­a­tives stayed be­hind and per­ished in the Holo­caust. Ris­ing quickly through La­bor Party ranks, he be­came a top aide to Mr. Ben-Gu­rion, Is­rael’s first prime min­is­ter and a man Mr. Peres once called “the great­est Jew of our time.”

At 29, he was the youngest per­son to serve as di­rec­tor of Is­rael’s De­fense Min­istry, and is cred­ited with arm­ing Is­rael’s mil­i­tary al­most from scratch. Yet through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, he suf­fered from the fact that he never wore an army uni­form or fought in a war.

De­spite con­tin­ued waves of vi­o­lence that pushed the Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal map to the right, the con­cept of a Pales­tinian state next to Is­rael be­came main­stream Is­raeli pol­icy many years af­ter Mr. Peres ad­vo­cated it.

Shunted aside dur­ing the 1999 elec­tion cam­paign won by party col­league Ehud Barak, Mr. Peres re­jected ad­vice to re­tire, as­sum­ing the newly cre­ated and loosely de­fined Cabi­net post of Min­is­ter for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion.

In 2000, Mr. Peres ab­sorbed an­other re­sound­ing po­lit­i­cal slap, los­ing an elec­tion in the par­lia­ment for the largely cer­e­mo­nial post of pres­i­dent to Likud Party back­bencher Moshe Kat­sav.

Even so, Mr. Peres re­fused to quit. In 2001, at age 77, he took the post of for­eign min­is­ter in the gov­ern­ment of na­tional unity set up by Ariel Sharon, serv­ing for 20 months be­fore La­bor with­drew from the coali­tion.

Then he fol­lowed Mr. Sharon into a new party, Kadima, serv­ing as vice-pre­mier un­der Mr. Sharon and his suc­ces­sor, Ehud Olmert, be­fore as­sum­ing the pres­i­dency.

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