Monday 19 February 2018

Obituary: Shimon Peres

Israeli statesman who won a Nobel for his efforts to broker Middle East peace and masterminded the raid on Entebbe

Dealmaker: Then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, left, and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat clasp hands during talks on the Middle East in Majorca in 2001 Shimon. Photo: Reuters
Dealmaker: Then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, left, and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat clasp hands during talks on the Middle East in Majorca in 2001 Shimon. Photo: Reuters Newsdesk Newsdesk

Shimon Peres, one of Israel's leading statesmen, who died on Wednesday aged 93, had a long and distinguished political career in the course of which he served twice as prime minister and as the nation's ninth president.

Regarded as the architect of the Oslo Peace Accords with the Palestinians, Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

He brought fresh ideas and brisk energies to every office he held. However, in Israel where, particularly in the 1970s, military generals were seen as gods and Israelis liked their leaders rough-cut and earthy, Peres, with his foreign accent and lack of military experience, was often regarded as an outsider.

He never won general elections, and his premierships were not the result of outright victory but rather political circumstances. "Nobody likes me," he once complained. "Even my good actions and positive qualities are distorted." On another occasion, at a Labour pre-election rally, he said: "They say I am a loser. Am I a loser?" His fellow party members roared back: "Yes!"

Shimon Peres was born Shimon Perski in Vishneva, Poland, on August 2, 1923, one of two children of timber merchant Yitzhak Perski and librarian and Russian teacher Sara Meltzer. His grandfather, a rabbi, had a strong influence on young Shimon's world view.

In a later interview, Peres recalled: "As a child I grew up in my grandfather's home. He taught me Talmud [the source from which the code of Jewish law is derived]. My home was not an observant one. Once, I heard my parents listening to the radio on the Sabbath and I smashed it."

When Shimon was 10, the family emigrated to Palestine, then under British Mandate, and settled in Tel Aviv. During World War Two, Shimon's father served in the British army; all relatives who remained in Poland, including Shimon's beloved grandfather, were killed in the Holocaust.

Young Shimon attended the Balfour Elementary School and the Geulah School for Commerce in Tel Aviv. At 15, he joined the Ben Shemen Agricultural School and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Alumot, in northern Palestine, where he spent some time as a dairy farmer and shepherd.

In 1941, Peres was elected secretary of Ha'noar Ha'oved, the youth wing of the Labour Party, where he proved himself to be a superb organiser. He was soon noticed by Israel's future prime minister David Ben Gurion, who on one occasion gave Peres a lift to Haifa so that he could see for himself how impressive this young activist was. It was the beginning of what would subsequently become a productive working relationship between the "Old Man", as Ben Gurion came to be known, and young Peres.

In 1950, Ben Gurion made Peres head of the Israeli purchasing mission in Washington; his task was to buy arms for the Israeli army. This was not an easy task, as Washington had placed an embargo on the sale of arms to the Middle East.

Peres had by then already developed the talents that enabled him to find ways round the regulations and achieve his goals. While in the US, he enrolled at the New York University where he studied English, economics and philosophy; he also studied advanced management at Harvard.

In 1953, Ben Gurion app- ointed Peres director general of the Ministry of Defence; at 30, he was the youngest person to hold this key position.

In July 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. Keen to regain control of the waterway, the British and French governments worked closely with the Israelis on a secret military plan whereby the Israelis would invade the Sinai, followed by a British-French intervention aimed at "separating" Israelis and Egyptians, in the course of which the British and French would regain physical control of the canal.

Peres, as Ben Gurion's envoy, was intimately involved in the negotiations, particularly with the French, who had to accept his demand to provide Israel with a nuclear reactor in return for Israeli participation - an agreement thought to have marked the beginning of the Israeli nuclear weapons programme (though the country has never officially admitted to having such weapons).

The secrecy that surrounded the whole affair, the conspiracies, the intrigues, were by then second nature to Peres, and he was in his element.

In 1959, at the behest of Ben Gurion, Peres was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament; he was also appointed deputy defence minister, a post that he kept until 1965. In subsequent years he held a variety of offices - at Transport, Absorption, Communications and Information - none of which excited him, but on all of which he left his mark.

In October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian troops invaded, catching Israel off guard. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, which shocked Israel to the core, prime minister Golda Meir resigned and was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin; Moshe Dayan also resigned and was replaced by Peres as defence minister. It was a job Peres had always wanted, and he set about reorganising the army, whose morale had been badly shaken by the war.

Peres's greatest moment as defence minister came on June 27, 1976, when an Air France plane en route from Tel Aviv to Paris with 248 pass-engers on board was hijacked by Palestinian militants and diverted to Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers demanded that Israel release from jail 40 Palestinian militants in exchange for the hostages, many of whom were Jews and Israelis.

In Israel, prime minister Rabin and his chief of staff felt that they had to negotiate with the hijackers, but Peres kept his nerve and urged them to play for time and plan a military operation to rescue the hostages.

On July 3, in a daring raid, Israeli commandos landed in Entebbe, freed the hostages and took them to Israel. When the operation was successfully concluded, the chief of staff praised Peres by saying that he deserved "all the credit" for pushing for a military solution.

The Entebbe operation, however, led to growing tensions between Rabin and Peres. Peres felt that Rabin was trying to marginalise him and take credit for the successful rescue, while Rabin found Peres unscrupulous and untrustworthy. The rivalry that developed between the pair did little to enhance the electoral prospects of the Labour Party.

On the eve of the 1977 general elections, Rabin was found guilty of breaking Israel's currency laws. It was a minor infringement, but it added to the impression that the Labour movement, which had been in power for 30 years, was no longer fit to rule.

Rabin felt compelled to stand down, but as he could not legally resign from a transitional government he officially remained prime minister while Peres became the unofficial acting prime minister. He led the Labour Party into the elections - and lost. Menachem Begin at the head of the Likud party would be prime minister for seven years, leaving a frustrated Peres to lead the opposition.

In the 1984 general elections, neither the Peres-led Labour nor Yitzhak Shamir's Likud could muster the 61 necessary Knesset seats to form a coalition, thus forcing the two parties to form a unified government in which, it was agreed, Peres would serve as prime minister for two years before stepping down and handing over to Shamir.

However, in his short tenure as prime minister, Peres managed to tackle some of Israel's thorniest problems, most notably the economy which, when he entered office, was on the verge of collapse.

Peres checked the outflow of foreign currency and reduced inflation to manageable figures. He also withdrew Israeli troops from most of Lebanon, where they had been since the Israeli invasion of 1982. Yet his performance was not enough to win him the confidence of the nation and, in the 1988 general elections, he was defeated.

By 1992, Labour was again led by Peres's political rival Yitzhak Rabin, who pledged that if elected prime minister he would, within 15 months, strike peace deals with the Palestinians. After his election, Rabin tried but failed to fulfil this pledge to the Israeli people.

Instead, it was his foreign minister, the ever imaginative Peres, working behind the scenes, who managed in a series of secret talks in Norway to broker the signing, in September 1993, of the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. Israel, it was agreed, would gradually withdraw from occupied territories, granting the Palestinians self-determination.

There was strong opposition to the peace deal in right-wing circles in Israel, and on November 4, 1995, Peres and Rabin appeared together at a rally in Tel Aviv in support of the peace process.

In a later interview with Ahron Bregman, Peres described what turned out to be the most traumatic event in his entire political career: "When we came to the rally, Rabin could not believe his eyes. It was an immense rally attended by tens of thousands of people. And he was overjoyed. I had never, in my life, seen him so happy. We had known each other for 50 years and he had never, never hugged me. At the rally, for the first time in his life, he hugged me."

When the rally was over, Peres left first, walking past a Jewish assassin who was waiting for Rabin to emerge. "I got into my car, closed the door and then suddenly heard three shots," he recalled. "'Stop', I said to my driver. I wanted to get out. But my security men said, 'Absolutely not'.

"And, sounding the sirens, they drove away wildly. We didn't know yet what had happened.

"We only knew that Yitzhak was being taken to hospital. I demanded to be taken there immediately. The head of the hospital came to me and said that Yitzhak was no longer alive. We walked into the room where he was lying on the bed. His body was covered with a sheet up to his shoulders. On his face was an expression of peace - and an ironical sort of smile; a special smile. I kissed his forehead and said, 'Goodbye'. I was very shocked."

Peres succeeded Rabin as prime minister and defence minister, and he tried to revive the peace process. Realising, however, that for a big breakthrough he would need a fresh mandate from the Israeli people, he called for new elections which, on May 29, 1995, he lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.

In June 2007, Peres was elected president of Israel - a ceremonial position that he kept until his final retirement in 2014. Following his election, Peres resigned from the Knesset, of which he had been a member since 1959, a record term in Israeli political history.

Peres was a popular president and it seemed that, at last, the Israelis had warmed to him.

He was a neat, dapper figure, and although he loved gourmet meals, he ate sparingly to keep himself trim. His elegance and wit made him a favourite with foreign dignitaries, and he managed to charm Margaret Thatcher, whom he once led in a "hora" (circle dance) after an official banquet.

In 2008, Peres was honoured by Britain when he was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George; and in June 2012, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

Always the optimist, he used to say that "optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist".

Shimon Peres married Sonya Gelman in 1945, just after she finished her military service as a truck driver in the British army during World War Two; she died in 2011. They had two sons and one daughter.

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