As a young Israeli defense official, Shimon Peres secured arms and technology deals that laid the foundation blocks for his fledgling country’s military might.
Decades later, he championed territorial concessions in peace deals with Israel’s Arab neighbors – becoming the vastly more powerful nation’s best-known dove abroad.
Though that won Mr. Peres a Nobel Peace Prize and the status of an international diplomatic celebrity, at home he was never able to translate his vision for peace into an electoral mandate for the left-wing Labor Party.
Mr. Peres, who served his country as prime minister and later as president, died Wednesday at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where he had been hospitalized for the past two weeks.
His career in public office spanned seven decades, stretching back to Israel’s founding in 1948 and including decisions affecting seminal chapters in Israeli history – such as the birth of the country’s nuclear program and the acquisition of strategic hardware that Israel used in wars against its neighbors.
But he gained the most widespread acclaim for his role in 1993 as foreign minister when he, along with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, helped engineer a breakthrough peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. His status as Israel’s leading statesman and luminary was solidified when he shared the Nobel with Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
“He realized that if you want security you need a political process, and that the peace process is key to Israel’s future. It’s about international legitimacy,” says Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist and author. “Here is a person who was very pragmatic and looking for allies [for Israel], and suddenly realized that we must be on the right side of history and that the occupation would never let us do that.”
Known as the Oslo Accords, the agreements reversed the destructive violent cycle of the first Palestinian uprising and initiated years of peace talks with the Palestinians aimed at establishing a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They also initiated a process of normalization with the wider Arab world, most notably a peace agreement with Jordan in 1994.
Riding the momentum of the warming ties, Mr. Peres authored a book, “The New Middle East,” that envisioned an intertwined region of cross-border cooperation between Israel and Arab nations in energy, water, and tourism.
Ben Gurion pragmatism
But the complications of the Middle East intruded. Mr. Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, and Peres could not carry forward on his own. He lost a close election campaign a half-year later to the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu after a wave of Palestinian bus bombings sapped confidence in the peace accords. Eventually, under Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an effort to reach a permanent settlement with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 failed, and a second Palestinian uprising ensued.
In Israeli public opinion, the peace process forged a stable and sizeable majority in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state after a prolonged ideological debate between Israel’s left and right about whether to hold onto the occupied territories.
Despite Peres’s celebrity-like reputation in recent years as Israel’s ultimate dove, Israeli diplomats and journalists insist he wasn’t an ideological peacenik, but that his approach to the peace process was driven by pragmatism. Akiva Eldar, the diplomatic correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, says Peres for a long time preferred that Jordan, not the Palestinians, take responsibility for the West Bank.
"He was not a dove that believes the Palestinian people deserve their own state. He believes this is the only way to keep Israel Jewish and democratic,” he says.
That pragmatism was learned at the side of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, whom Peres frequently referred to as “my mentor and teacher.”
Peres started in weapons procurement for the underground Haganah in the 1940s, and over the next two decades established relationships that established a “qualitative” edge in arms for Israel’s outnumbered army.
At the Defense Ministry in the 1950s, he secured weapons agreements with France and signed an accord with Paris to obtain the technology that helped Israel build a nuclear reactor. He also secured anti-aircraft missiles from President Kennedy in 1962, marking a break with US policy not to sell arms to Israel.
“Peres was critical to setting one of the precedents on which today's US-Israel alliance rests: major American arms sales to the Jewish state,” says Warren Bass, the author of a history of Israel-US ties under President Kennedy.
“The Hawk surface-to-air missiles that JFK agrees to sell in the summer of 1962 are, in Peres’s words, “the first major weapons to breach the wall of America's arms embargo.”
After the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising and the demise of negotiations, Peres disappointed pro-peace supporters by leading the Labor Party into a unity coalition with the government of Ariel Sharon, a longtime personal friend. He then abandoned Labor to form a centrist party, Kadima, with Mr. Sharon. Critics say the political maneuvering hurt the entire pro-peace left.
“Joining with Sharon, the king of the settlements, in many ways broke the neck of the left in Israel,” says Yossi Beilin, a longtime Peres ally.
'The last iconic Israeli'
Despite his long years in the top echelons of the Labor party, Peres lacked populist appeal in Israel. As a political campaigner, he was never able to win an outright vote in general elections and became known as a loser.
After leaving party politics, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, selected him in 2007 to become the country’s ninth president, a ceremonial position that Peres held until 2014 and used to continue his peace diplomacy.
Though he remained Israel’s most celebrated peacenik, he was unable to prod Mr. Netanyahu into peace talks.
“He’s really the last iconic Israeli,” says Shavit. “He’s the last Israeli to embody the Israeli saga – the establishment the state of Israel, the astonishing success of the state of Israel, and the conflict Israel is stuck in.”