Shimon Peres, the Eternal Immigrant

Having arrived in Israel at age 10, Shimon Peres was always the new immigrant who had to try harder than everyone else - so he felt he had no choice but to outlast them all.

Peres and Sonya traveling by helicopter to kibbutz Alumot, south of the Sea Of Galilee.
Peres and Sonya traveling by helicopter to kibbutz Alumot, south of the Sea Of Galilee. Herman Hanania, GPO

Shimon Peres could have respectfully retired from political life at so many points in his career. He would have still had achieved more to build Israel's security than nearly anyone else alive. 

He could have resigned from the Knesset in the mid-1960s, following his mentor and patron David Ben-Gurion. Still in his early 40s, instead of languishing on the backbenchers, a lucrative future in business was open to him, as the man who had negotiated Israel's most crucial arms and technology deals, and had laid the foundations for its defense industry. In 1977, when he lost the election to Menachem Begin and Likud first came to power, the correct thing would have been to make way for a new generation of Labor Party leaders. But he soldiered on a leader of the opposition, despite another humiliating defeat in 1981. 

Read more on Shimon Peres: The countless contradictions of the late and great Shimon Peres | Obama, world leaders mourn Peres | Shimon Peres, the eternal immigrant | Peres' quixotic battle for Israeli-Palestinian peace | Peres, 1923-2016: an interactive timeline

The crushing loss in 1996, by a fraction of a point to Benjamin Netanyahu, should have been another clear signal that his time was up. And again, four years later when he lost in a secret ballot for the presidency against political nonentity Moshe Katzav, he kept on going, even when he seemed pathetic to everyone around. Even when he was pushed by younger prime ministers in to minor cabinet posts way beneath his experience. Even when he twice felt forced to leave the party he had served for over six decades. Even when his last hurrah, a second and finally successful run for president, meant separating from his wife Sonia and leading their last years apart.

On the way he broke nearly all the Israeli political records of longevity. He served as Knesset member for over 47 years, no one else comes even close. He is the only man to have ever served in all four top government jobs − defense, foreign and finance minister, as well as prime minister. He had reached the top again and again, won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it was never enough and he always wanted to keep going.

Shimon Peres was the eternal Oleh. The frustrated immigrant forever looking in from the outside on those who felt they instinctively belonged. He was too young to be one of the founding fathers of the state, who immigrated as pioneers in the early part of the 20th century. And he was unlucky to have come to Israel before his Zionist parents decided to emigrate. It didn't matter that he had arrived in mandatory Palestine only at the age of 10. He could never quite shake the vestiges of that Polish accent and a fussiness for his appearance. He always felt he had to prove himself. 

It didn’t matter that by the end of his thirties, he had already achieved what few men had achieved in entire lifetimes. He had been the one Ben-Gurion entrusted with crucial missions of national security. He had built Israel's nuclear reactor, contending with critics at home and powerful foes abroad, including an American president, to see the project through to completion. He remained haunted by his foreignness. He was the one treated as “a jungermann” by the Mapai old guard who ran the party of power and was never adulating as the dashing sabra generals, like his friend Moshe Dayan, who were his contemporaries. He was always the new immigrant who had to try harder than everyone else. So he felt he had no choice in the end but to outlast them all.

Tragically, Peres attained the status he yearned for, that of the nation's elder statesman, only as president in his mid-eighties. When Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin were dead and Ariel Sharon was in a deep coma. That was when the politicians and the generals and the spy-chiefs came seeking his advice and for the first time in his long career he was as popular at home as had long been abroad. Only when he was the last man standing, did the young immigrant Shimon Peres finally arrive in the promised land.