A light for peace

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The former president of Israel Shimon Peres died on last September 29th at the age of 93, after not being able to overcome the cerebral haemorrhage that he suffered. Israel lost a founding father and “a light for peace,” per the Israeli news agency.

Born on August 2nd, 1923 in Vishneva, a Jewish shtetl in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, with the name of Szymon Perski, emigrating with his family to Tel Aviv at the age of 11. After his family immigrated to Palestine in 1934, he joined a socialist youth movement and signed up for an agricultural school at Ben Shemen to grow himself in the Zionist ideal: as a farmer. As a young man, he changed his name to the Hebraized Peres, meaning vulture. At the age of 17, he was one of the founders of Alumot’s kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. After his first experience as founder of Alumot’s kibbutz, where he worked as a shepherd, herdsman and secretary of the organization, Peres entered with 20 years in the Israeli politics with David Ben Gurion, who appointed him as a member of the secretariat of his party, the Mapai, and sent him as a youth delegate to the Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in 1946.

His long career in PA began when he was appointed head of the Ministry of Defence in 1953 and concluded after having served from 2007 to 2014 as President of Israel, a position he reached when he was about to turn 84. Peres worked as a deputy for the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, for 48 years (1959-2007) and was a minister in twelve different governments, and twice was PM (1984-1986 and 1995-1996). In his more than 60 years dedicated to politics, Peres had the opportunity to work under David Ben Gurion’ command, the PM who officially proclaimed the independence of the state of Israel; also to Golda Meir, Isaac Rabin and Ariel Sharon, among others.

Mr. Peres left a complex legacy. At every stage in his political career, the European-born Mr. Peres had to fight the sense that he was insincere, consummately political and opportunistic. He never passed for an Israeli-born’ sabra and always seemed to be slightly removed from the country he led. His Hebrew was tinged with a Polish accent, and his florid rhetorical style was at odds with Israeli directness. Israelis commented that even his carefully combed hairstyle seemed somehow European. He was never a combat soldier or an officer in the Israeli army, which he would later head as Defence minister. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, his long-time rival, once called him an ‘inveterate schemer.’

To many, Mr. Peres seemed a contradictory figure. Although he served as prime minister three times, he was never elected to the office and remained unpopular with voters. He projected intellectualism but had little formal education. He spoke of moderation and compromise but was notorious for his vitriolic feuds with other politicians.

As foreign minister, Mr. Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat after helping to create a program for negotiating with the Palestinians that later stalled and sputtered out.

The man best known internationally for promoting peace started his public career procuring weapons at a young age. In the 1970s, as Defence minister, Mr. Peres encouraged Jewish settlers to claim land in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. By the early 1990s, a growing number of Israelis were rejecting the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as morally wrong, on the grounds that it violated principles of democracy and equality; that it was demographically undesirable, because it brought millions of Palestinians under the authority of the Jewish state; and that it was militarily impractical, because it committed Israeli troops to confronting Palestinian civilians instead of the potential threat from foreign enemies. And Peres then retracted, according to the new times.

In June 2007, as the Knesset elected Mr. Peres president of Israel, he gained unprecedented popularity at home, enjoying the status of elder statesman. He served as consultant to Netanyahu when the latter became prime minister again in 2009 and was largely viewed as a moderating force against Netanyahu’s hard-line policies: “I expressed my opinion, and that was my duty,” Mr. Peres said.

Also in 2007 President Obama awarded Mr. Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, calling him “the essence of Israel itself: an indomitable spirit that will not be denied.” The Israeli politician also received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2014.

After more than a half-century of involvement in the most important events of Israel’s history, Mr. Peres had become “the grand old man of Israeli politics,” said Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s international security program and a former deputy national security adviser of Israel. “You could feel his influence everywhere.”

Mr. Peres lived a life like that of his country, struggling to find a balance between security and peace. “My life’s work is not yet done. The final, crowning chapters of my biography are still being written at this time. They deal with the subject closest to my heart, peace.” Mr. Peres wrote in his memoir.

At his Nobel award speech, he stated “The wars we fought were forced upon us. Thanks to the Israel Defence Forces, we won them all, but we did not win the greatest victory that we aspired to: release from the need to win victories.” The legacy of Peres to the world can be summarized in this sentence: “The message of the Jewish people to mankind is that faith and moral vision can triumph over all adversity.”

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