IN THE PASSING of Shimon Peres, Israel has not only lost a leader who was devoted to peace, but also a member of the country’s founding generation. After almost 60 years in public life, Peres became president in 2007 and in that role was looked upon as an elder statesman not only in his country but around the world as well.
His political life largely mirrored the twists and turns in the history of Israel. Peres was closely associated with David Ben-Gurion—the founder of Israel—during the years of struggle to create a Jewish homeland. Peres was involved in forging defence institutions and policies of his country. As director general of defence, he was instrumental in getting Israel much needed military equipment and its ultimate shield in a hostile neighbourhood—a nuclear weapon. The Israeli nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev Desert was later discovered by the US, setting off a chain of events in which Prime Minister Ben-Gurion chose to resign in 1963 instead of giving up the country’s right to a nuclear deterrent.
These services to his country, however, did not endear Peres to the electorate. In a country where former military commanders have reached the top of the political pole as heroes—Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak are examples—his lack of military experience was always a handicap in his quest for the office of prime minister. He served as prime minister for two short terms, 1984-1986 and 1995-1996, the latter after the assassination of his bitter rival, Yitzhak Shamir. But he never won an electoral mandate on his own.
The last 20 years of his career were of a mixed hue. By the end of his time in the Labor Party, the leadership had concluded that he was not ‘prime minister material’. This was after a disastrous political campaign in the mid-1990s which saw Benjamin Netanyahu reach the top spot. A decade later, he chose to break away from Labor and join hands with arch-conservative Sharon who, in turn, had quit the Likud party to try a bold political experiment: Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, something that was not possible within the limits of ‘normal’ politics. It was in this period that Peres was blamed for the Oslo Accord with Palestinians not working out as expected. But by then, his reputation as an Israel statesman was secure.