Scottish Daily Mail

Nobel winner who sacrificed his marriage to fight for Middle East peace

As ex-Israeli premier Shimon Peres dies

- by Philip Jacobson

ENDLEss politics cost him his marriage — even Princess Diana wondered why his wife wasn’t with him when she and Prince Charles gave him lunch at Kensington Palace. And some saw him as an indefatiga­ble schemer in an endless pursuit of personal power.

Yet when shimon Peres died yesterday, following a stroke two weeks previously, he was an Israeli hero, revered and loved, a symbol of national unity in a nation of extremes.

World leaders united in paying heartfelt tributes, with Barack Obama calling him ‘the essence of Israel itself’. Theresa May described Mr Peres as ‘a visionary and courageous statesman, who worked relentless­ly for peace and never lost hope that this would one day be achievable’.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed ‘deep sorrow’ about a ‘man of vision’ who ‘worked until his final days toward reconcilin­g with our neighbours’.

While Palestinia­n Authority president Mahmoud Abbas expressed ‘sorrow and sadness’ for the man who battled for peace ‘until the last breath’. Peres never lost his belief that there could be peace in the Middle East, even though, despite living to be 93, he failed to see his dream of two friendly states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side.

‘For me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic,’ he would say, with typically dryness.

so as he relentless­ly worked for, and signed, the 1993 Oslo peace accords that resulted in him sharing the Nobel peace prize with pugnacious Palestinia­n leader Yasser Arafat and his own Labour government colleague Yitzhak Rabin, he was also making sure Israel’s defence forces were equipped for anything.

he was happy for potential aggressors to know that Israel was well equipped with nuclear weapons, explaining: ‘If people are afraid that we have them, why not? It’s a deterrent.’

shimon Peres was the last of Israel’s founding fathers. he has left the nation’s stage after a political career that spanned six decades and touched on many of the defining events in the turbulent history of the Jewish state.

he never lost his optimism, or his legendary energy that left aides exhausted, even when he was in his 90s. In particular, he liked convivial and noisy lunches over bottles of wine.

Twice prime minister before becoming the country’s president until 2014, his was a remarkable feat of longevity given the carnivorou­s nature of Israeli politics.

Becoming the 9th president in 2007, Peres was credited with restoring honour and decency to the office, a post held before him by Moshe Katsav, who was jailed for seven years for rape and sexual harassment. (Katsav is now in the same prison as former PM Ehud Olmert, convicted of bribery and corruption.)

As a journalist who reported from Israel over many years, I sometimes struggled to understand why, paradoxica­lly, for much of his time in the public eye, Peres was deeply unpopular among ordinary Israelis across the political divides.

ThIs urbane, courteous and cerebral man, so widely respected abroad — he received an honorary knighthood from the Queen and was decorated by President Obama — provoked visceral hostility among some of his fellow citizens.

Many saw Peres as a shifty operator who could not be trusted to put the nation’s interests above personal ambition. Indeed, his track record of switching parties no fewer than five times did him no favours.

Another common gripe, however unfair, was that Peres had never seen active service in any of Israel’s wars. In a nation accustomed to putting its trust in leaders with battlefiel­d credential­s — such as former PM Yitzhak Rabin and the present prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — he was exposed to sniping from the sidelines.

having led Labour to five election defeats in less than 20 years, Peres also came in for plenty of mockery as the perennial runner-up of Israeli politics. For a proud and touchy, some would say paranoid, man, that stung — and on one memorable occasion when he was running for a party position he decided to tackle the electabili­ty issue head-on. ‘so am I a loser?’ he asked delegates rhetorical­ly. ‘Yes!’ came the humiliatin­g chorused response.

The Peres back story closely resembles that of other Jews from Eastern Europe who escaped the holocaust to reach what was then British-administer­ed Palestine.

Born in Poland in 1923, he grew up in a middle-class family that owned a timber business — and the late hollywood star Lauren Bacall was a distant relative through her own Polish antecedent­s.

Peres was strongly religious as a child, once smashing the family radio his parents were sacrilegio­usly listening to on the sabbath. however, decades later, ever the pragmatic president, he would speak out against extremism among the country’s influentia­l ultra-Orthodox community.

Peres’s father brought the family to Tel Aviv in 1934. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, other family members who stayed behind were rounded up and burned alive in a synagogue. (That event would never be far from his mind. A few years ago, in a speech marking Israel’s Remembranc­e Day, he declared that the holocaust must never be allowed to sink in to the annals of history: ‘It is always with us, burning, real.’)

After a stint at agricultur­al college, he became actively involved in Left-wing politics and, aged 29, was fast-tracked by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, into the Defence Ministry where he establishe­d lasting links with the military and security apparatus.

In those early years, Peres was regarded as an unrepentan­t hawk when it came to dealings with the Palestinia­ns, earning the nickname ‘Mr security’ for his opposition to the creation of a Palestinia­n state.

HE was also a forceful advocate of implanting Jewish settlement­s — ‘the roots and eyes of Israel’ — on territory captured during the 1967 six Day war (between Israel and the Arab neighbouri­ng states of syria, Jordan and Egypt). To this day, those settlement­s remain a major obstacle to peace.

As Peres’s political star continued to rise, he began to move to the Left — softening his hardline stance — which meant he was willing to meet Palestinia­n leaders.

More significan­tly, he pitted himself against the hawks in his own party by supporting a landmark Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty hammered out in 1979. The fury this ‘betrayal’ generated on the Israeli Right carried over into the 1981 general election, during an ugly campaign in which opponents spread rumours (never substantia­ted) that Peres’s mother was an Arab.

This didn’t stop him swinging even further Left and being perceived as what one observer described as ‘a symbol of Israel’s willingnes­s to compromise’.

But there was to be no compromise by his wife, sonya, whom he wed in 1945. It was common knowledge the mother of his three children — who drove a truck for the British Army during World War II — didn’t like politics. That was why she was not with him on his 1986 visit as Prime Minister to Britain, missing that lunch with Charles and Diana.

When he became president, they began living apart, with Peres later admitting to a newspaper that ‘politics broke up my marriage’.

sonya had begged him not to run for the presidency. ‘she said to me “you’ve done enough, there are others who can serve the country”.

‘Maybe, I said, but I feel I can’t help but do this. so we decided to go our separate ways.’

he believed it was the best decision for him and for his beloved Israel. And it ensured that shimon Peres’s dream of peace was not allowed to fade away.

his funeral will be held tomorrow in Jerusalem.

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 ??  ?? Peace and love: Shimon Peres, top, embraces PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and, inset, the veteran statesman with his wife Sonya
Peace and love: Shimon Peres, top, embraces PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and, inset, the veteran statesman with his wife Sonya

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