Shimon Peres, who died on Wednesday at the age of 93, was one of Israel’s most defining figures, a politician who was present at the founding of the Jewish state, oversaw its nuclear programme and then transformed in his later years from a hawk to a peacemaker.
More loved abroad than at home until his final years, the two-time prime minister was “the essence of Israel itself”, in the words of Barack Obama, who led the tributes.
Peres is best-known for being one of the architects of the historic Oslo Accords in 1993, which were meant to pave the way for an independent Palestinian state. Until Peres broke the taboo, Israel had refused to negotiate directly with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. A year later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his old political nemesis Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO.
But the accords never translated into a lasting peace, and in his final years Peres looked on with dismay as the two-state solution he championed appeared increasingly unlikely.
Born in Poland in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Palestine at the age of 11, settling in Tel Aviv. He became active in politics, catching the attention of David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, who made him one of his protégés.
During Israel’s war of independence in 1948, Peres was responsible for purchasing weapons for the army and after that was out of the public eye. He was briefly head of the naval service, and then moved to the defence ministry as director general where he was instrumental in building up the country’s military capacity. During the Fifties, Peres founded Israel’s clandestine nuclear programme before entering politics in 1959. Over the next half century he held numerous positions in cabinet, from finance to transport and foreign affairs.
Though he often spoke of harmonious co-existence with Israel’s neighbours, he initially had strong reservations about territorial compromise, and supported settlement building in the 1970s. He twice served as prime minister, first in a unity government in 1984 and subsequently after Rabin was assassinated in 1995.
He never won an election though, despite running for prime minister five times. His biggest setback occurred in 1996, when was certain he would win and be able to start implementing the two-state solution. But terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Peres’s decision to launch an offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where scores of refugees were killed during an Israeli attack, turned public opinion against him. Victory went to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister and a hardliner with whom Peres has never seen eye to eye.
He stayed in politics and in 2007 became Israel’s ninth president, a largely ceremonial role. Two years later he became the first Israeli president to speak to the legislature of a Muslim country, addressing the Turkish parliament.
Peres stepped down as president in 2014, at the age of 91, but never stopped advocating peace with the Palestinians, even after Israeli society appeared to lose interest in a pursuing lasting accommodation with its neighbours.
In an interview with Time in February, he was asked about Israel’s future if there was no peace agreement.
“If there won’t be a two state solution, it will be ongoing violence and tragedy for all sides, for all people. The opposite to just is wrong. And you cannot compare it. Two states can bring peace. The lack of two states can prevent peace. And nations without peace, people without peace are going to live in a terrible tragedy, totally unnecessary.”