Shimon Peres, 1923-2016: From Nuclear Pioneer to Champion of Peace

Israel’s elder statesman Shimon Peres believed security and peace went hand in hand and that 'Dimona had paved the way for Oslo.'

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Former President Shimon Peres.
Former President Shimon Peres.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died early Wednesday morning at the age of 93, two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.

Peres was a Knesset member for nearly 50 years, from the Ben-Gurion government in 1959 through the Olmert administration in 2007. He served as a minister in 12 different governments, including twice as prime minister. He is the only Israeli to have served as both prime minister and president.

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

Having outlived every other politician of his generation, he was one of the most seasoned leaders in the world. As his political allies and rivals rose and fell, entered and exited politics, retired and died, Peres continued to move from position to position, from one enterprise to the next — until September 13 when he suffered a stroke. His condition deteriorated severely late Tuesday night.

Peres displayed a dual personality. He was a tragic figure who experienced crushing defeats but was also an incorrigible optimist and go-getter who chalked up enormous achievements. He was a controversial leader, riding waves of popularity while drawing bitter criticism.

Then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres (center) during negotiations in 1985. Deputy prime minister Yitzhak Shamir is seated on the left.Credit: Saar Yaacov / GPO

His life’s work included extensive involvement in setting up and bolstering Israel’s defense infrastructure. He armed the Israel Defense Forces with advanced weaponry, established and developed its military and aerial industries, founded Israel’s nuclear program and was among the architects of 1976 Entebbe rescue mission. His diplomatic career included paving the way for the West Bank settlement enterprise as well as pursuing peace and signing the Oslo Accords. His political life was marked by bitter rivalries with his colleagues, intrigues and scheming. Eventually, as the country’s ninth president, he became one of Israel’s most beloved and illustrious representatives on the world stage.

A religious child

Shimon Peres (formerly Szymon Perski) was born on August 21, 1923 in Vishnev, Poland, which is now part of Belarus. His brother Gershon (who died in 2011) was born two years later.

Peres’ parents were Getzel (Yitzhak) Perski, a trader, and Sara Perski née Meltzer, a librarian. Both of them were scions of families of Torah scholars. However, they both lived secular lives. Shimon, in contrast, was a religious child, wore a yarmulke and kept the religious commandments.

“I knew that the most important thing a man has is in his head, and from a young age I often studied the head structure of each person, hoping to crack his codes. I considered a high forehead a gift from God,” Peres, whose high forehead was one of his distinguishing traits, once said.

Some 1,500 Jews lived in his town. He recalled from his childhood the excitement sparked by a Jew who, on a visit from the Land of Israel, brought an orange with him. “I will never forget the Jews of the little town standing with their jaws dropped and their eyes lit up, in front of the tiny orange, which symbolized for them the best of their hopes and the pinnacle of the desires concealed in their hearts,” he recalled. “That was the first time I felt almost palpably what the Land of Israel is.”

He was a pupil of Yehoshua Rabinowitz at the Tarbut School, studying Hebrew, Yiddish and Zionism. Rabinowitz was later Tel Aviv mayor and finance minister.

He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1934 and studied at the Geula Gymnasia high school in Tel Aviv. His schoolmates loved sports, but Peres, still called Perski then, preferred writing poems. He loved literature and the Bible and detested the exact sciences. He was described as having two left legs and as “white and not tanned.”

He joined the Noar Haoved youth movement. “I dreamed of a future as a muscular, tanned, kibbutznik, who plowed the fertile fields of the Jezreel Valley in the day, sang religiously in the dining hall in the evening and fiercely guarded the farmland at night, riding a noble horse,” he once said.

Shimon Peres.Credit: Reuters

In 1938, he began attending the Ben Shemen agricultural school. “My goal in life was to serve my people, and the most important service for the Jewish people is building the land, and the basics of building the people and the country is working the land,” he wrote at the time. “Without that, there cannot be an attachment to the land, a grip will not be probable if you get disconnected from the land. We have enough doctors and professors and other learned people. Hebrew youths! We need simple workers of the land.”

During this period he met for the first time with Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion, who would greatly influence his life.

Michael Bar-Zohar wrote in “Shimon Peres: The Biography” that Peres at this point disengaged from his Polish identity and became an Israeli. He was sworn into the pre-state precursor of the army, the Haganah, and engaged in agriculture. Peres also met the love of his life there, Sonia Gelman, whom he married in 1945.

His father enlisted as a sapper with the British during World War II, joining a unit made up entirely of Jews from Palestine. He was captured by the Germans, but managed to escape time after time, finally returning to Palestine at the end of the war. Shimon’s mother worked in a British military parts factory. Sonia also enlisted. However, Peres saw before him a more important mission, establishing new settlements in the country. “The army and the war don’t interest me,” he said at the time.

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

He founded the Alumot pioneer group in 1941, and set out to lay the foundations for Kibbutz Geva, opposite Lake Kinneret. There he began his political and public involvement, initially through the Hanoar Haoved youth movement. It was there that he was first revealed himself to be a man of vision and initiative; his rivals saw in him an unrealistic man driven by pipe-dreams.

In 1942 he moved with the founding group of 30 people to the top of Poriya Hill in the Galilee. He worked in the cowshed, in the pen, in the pasture and in the fields. He wrote book reviews and opinion pieces in the newspapers.

During this period, Peres participated in two famous treks. In 1942, he climbed Masada and was almost killed when he slipped down the edge of a rocky abyss and nearly fell into a chasm.
In 1945, he was supposed to go to Eilat, accompanied by the famous zoologist Heinrich Mendelssohn with the support and funding of Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Sadeh, commander of the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah. The Davar newspaper, according to his biography reported then: “This is the first time that a group of young Jewish youths toured the far regions of the Negev.”

The vulture

This trek, which ended with arrest by the British, introduced Perski to his future family name. It happened after the group encountered a huge vulture perched on a rock. Mendelssohn explained that the species, a bearded vulture, was known in Hebrew as “Peres.”

“The description was not pleasant, but Shimon liked the big bird’s name,” wrote Bar-Zohar in his biography of Peres. “He dutifully noted the details, not knowing that at this very moment the desert had presented him with his Hebrew name.”

Political beginnings

Meanwhile, Peres stepped up his political activism. He was secretary of external affairs and kibbutz treasurer, and he joined the Young Guard of Mapai, the dominant center-left political party, which would later evolve into the Labor Party. In 1945, he became Mapai’s rising star overnight, when he secured a stunning victory in the elections to the Noar Haoved’s steering committee as the movement’s secretary. His rivals accused him of fraud, deceit, subversion, and introducing dirty politics into the youth movement. Similar accusations would be linked to his name at other points in his career.

Shimon Peres meet with Yasser Arafat at the erez checkpoint entrance to Gaza, 1995.Credit: Avi Ohayon / Government press ofice

With his entry into the security field in 1947, his life changed from one extreme to the other. Peres, who was then a 24-year-old party hack, was recruited to join Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he was involved in several missions. The was being in charge of arms acquisitions abroad.

“I entered a new world,” he once recalled. “It was a world of mysterious missions and anonymous agents, a world that was populated by wonderful professionals, but also a smidgen of dreamers and fanatic devotees, who filed dramatic reports that represented more their imagination than the complex reality.”

Mr. Security

Peres’ image as “Mr. Security” was earned through his work alongside Ben-Gurion, Chief of Staff Yaakov Dori and personalities like Levi Eshkol, who would go on to be a prime minister, and Shaul Avigur, founder of the Haganah’s intelligence department. He also fulfilled roles like head of naval services, through which he put the navy on its feet, even though he was not a soldier of the seas.

“There I was, a 26-year-old kibbutznik from Alumot, without a rank, running complicated security operations,” he once said. “My naval experience amounted to a decent breaststroke and an attempt as a child to build a raft and to sail in the Tel Aviv sea.”

An undated photo of Shimon Peres with a missile ship in the background.Credit: IDF Archives

During the War of Independence, as in World War II, Peres did not enlist y. This choice would follow him like a curse his entire life. Indeed, it was from the 1948 war that much of the country’s new leadership would emerge. Eventually he was recognized as someone who performed military service during the war, but in practice he had worked at the Defense Ministry.

“I was a soldier. I was drafted and I swore an oath as a soldier, but I was tasked with organizational and acquisition roles,” he said in his defense. “I do not think that establishing Dimona is less soldier-like than any other role. I did my part,” he said, referring to the Dimona nuclear facility.

He went to the United States in 1949, combining studies with large-scale arms acquisitions, during a crucial period for Israel’s security. Upon his return in 1952, crowned with success, he was appointed deputy director general of the Defense Ministry at the tender age of 29. He was soon promoted to director general. Within a few years Peres turned the Defense Ministry into an economic, industrial and scientific empire.

Founder of the aircraft industry

Among other things, he founded and developed Israel’s aircraft industry, built and advanced relations with France and was responsible for opening France’s arms depots to Israel. This enabled Israel to arm itself with jets and tanks and made a decisive contribution to Israel’s military strength.

He also developed relations with West Germany before such ties became official. Thanks to his personal ties with the young German defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, the two countries signed important arms deals, through which Israel received planes, helicopters and tanks until the mid-1960s.

The nuclear program

The crowning glory of his security work was establishing Israel’s nuclear program. Many initially called him an irresponsible adventurer and said that there was no chance of bringing this program to fruition.

“The idea and its implementation aroused the ire of many against me,” he said. “There were those who claimed nothing would come of all this. Others sought to prove that the idea was impossible to realize, and some prophesied that if we even tried to go in the direction I suggested, the whole world would turn against us, and Dimona would bring upon us a terrible war.”

Shimon Peres pours water into a glass and hands it to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the UNESCO in Paris, France, February 18, 1995.Credit: Michel Lipchitz, AP

He was characterized the outcome accurately. “The reactor undoubtedly gave Israel a new dimension,” he said. “It is the greatest compensation for the country’s minuteness. Technology here constituted compensation for territory, for geography. And it is okay that the reactor is always mysterious and ambiguous because it is clear enough to serve as a deterrent to enemies, and ambiguous enough not to arouse the fury of the world. It gave Israel self-confidence. Everyone felt that the option to destroy us passed from the world.

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Peres would draw a connection between security and peace. “Dimona paved the way for Oslo. I was once asked how I would want to describe my biography, and I said: From Dimona to Oslo,” he said. “A nation attacks another nation for two reasons – the desire to destroy the other nation and the capability to do so. Because we could not change the desire, we needed to convince them that they could not do it. Thus, Dimona pulled the rug out from under the legs of those who thought they could destroy Israel.” President Chaim Herzog said at the time, “Aside from Ben-Gurion, there is no politician that Israel needed more on the security front than Peres.”

Peres entered the political chapter of his life in 1959 when he was elected to the Knesset as a Mapai member and was appointed deputy defense minister. He served in the Knesset nearly 50 consecutive years until his election as president in 2007. Peres was part of the young generation that attained key positions in Mapai, at Ben-Gurion’s behest.

He distinguished himself as an original and imaginative thinker, full of ideas and initiatives, some of them extreme. He utilized personal contacts that he had fostered with world leaders to bypass the foreign ministry and maintain diplomatic contacts and sign arms deals across the globe.

He resigned from Mapai in 1965, together with Ben-Gurion, who appointed him secretary general of Rafi, their new party. He led Rafi’s return in 1968 to Mapai to establish the Labor Party. He was appointed deputy secretary general of the unified party. He later served as minister in various positions in the Golda Meir government, including immigrant absorption, transportation and communications.

The Rabin rivalry

Peres ran for the leadership of the Labor Party in 1974, losing to Yitzhak Rabin. When Rabin was elected prime minister, he appointed Peres “with a heavy heart,” as he put it, as defense minister. Rabin’s deep hatred for Peres was the driving force of their relations, which continued to deteriorate over time. Rabin blamed Peres for being “an indefatigable subversive,” accused him of not being trustworthy and described his leadership as “demagogic and damaging.” Rabin also coined the term “the stinking maneuver” to describe Peres’ attempt to set up a narrow government under his own leadership in 1990 to replace the unity government led by Yitzhak Shamir.

Peres described their relationship in softer tones. “We weren’t a bad couple together, a good couple,” he said. “It was easier for me to be Rabin’s partner than for Rabin to be my partner because I tend to get tempted and he is more realistic. He said it was like that with every matter. “Yes, to believe in Arafat, not to believe in him, yes to believe in friends,” he said. “I prefer to fail because I am nave and not because I am cynical or sober.”

Shimon Peres addresses a rally commemorating the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Tel Aviv, Israel, November 12, 2005.Credit: Oleg Popov, Reuters

The challenges that were put at Peres’ doorstep as defense minister were many, including rebuilding the IDF after the Yom Kippur War. He did it well, equipping the army with missiles, tanks and fighter jets, some of them Israeli-made. A large portion of his achievements remains a secret. His well-known successes include the Entebbe operation to rescue Israeli hostages from a hijacked Air France jetliner in 1976 and establishing the Good Fence along the Lebanese border, which enabled Israel’s Maronite Christian allies to work in Israel. Peres was responsible for implementing the separation agreements with Egypt and Syria after the Yom Kippur War, and laid the foundations for cooperation with the Christian leadership in Lebanon.

His tenure of defense minister also included a controversial moment, whose ramifications have resonated significantly until today. In 1975, members of Gush Emunim, the messianic, right-wing activist movement, infiltrated the ruins of the Ottoman train station in Sebastia, in the West Bank. Peres, who was serving as defense minister, visited the place by helicopter and was welcomed with dancing. He initially called on the settlers to willingly evacuate until an agreed-upon arrangement could be reached. When they refused, he left the place. The poet Haim Guri, who was there, offered to mediate, and the next day a delegation of settlers visited Peres’ office in Tel Aviv.

Role in the settlements

In the wake of the negotiations, 30 families were allowed to settle at the adjacent military base, Camp Kedum. Thus were born the settlements of Elon Moreh and Kedumim. That same year, the government in which Peres was defense minister also approved the establishment of the Ofra settlement, and Peres was photographed planting a tree there. Peres also participated in the founding of the settlement of Ariel.

Bar-Zohar wrote at the time that Peres assisted the settlers because he deemed them Zionists and pioneers, and that he continued assisting them throughout his term as defense minister. Peres, for his part, explained: “We were against the settlements in Samaria, in areas heavily populated by Arabs. Then they spoke about a few isolated settlements. There were zigzags in the government there was an ideological drift. The settlements attracted many good people. People did not see where it was leading to, including the leadership.”

Peres lost to Rabin again in 1977 in the party primary. That same year Likud rose to power in the so-called “upheaval.” There were already signs of Peres’ changing diplomatic and security positions, which moved toward reconciliation with the Arab world. In 1980, he finally defeated Rabin in party elections, but he lost the 1981 elections to Likud.

The next elections were held in 1984, following the outbreak of the Lebanon War and a severe economic crises. Peres led his party to victory in the Knesset for the first and last time, and even then it was a Pyrrhic victory, as he was forced to set up a national unity government with Likud, and to rotate the premiership with Shamir.

Peres was then 61, and had turned the search for peace into his main activity as prime minister. “Peace is like love – it requires a little closing of the eyes, much generosity and the main thing to remember is that you are again not alone, that you have a helpmate,” he said at the time. Another time, he said: “Poverty and ignorance, which beget terror, are not eradicated by firing artillery shells. Borders do not stop rockets, and barbed wire does not prevent terror.”

Shimon Peres prepares for Passover at Kibbutz Revivim, Israel, April 17, 2014.Credit: Menashe Levi

However, reality required him to occupy himself with other matters and he was called upon to save Israel from hyperinflation. He is also credited with withdrawing Israeli forces in Lebanon to the security zone that was established in the south of the country. During his tenure, Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel through Operation Moses and Israel signed the Jibril deal, by which 1,100 Palestinian captives were released in exchange for three Israeli POWs.

His term was overshadowed by the arrest in the United States of the spy Jonathan Pollard and the Irangate affair, which involved Israel brokering American arms sales to Iran.

After the rotation in 1986 Peres became foreign minister in Shamir’s government. The acme of his work then was a secret meeting with King Hussein of Jordan. Peres tried to convene an international conference that would lead to opening peace talks, but Shamir thwarted the effort. The first intifada broke out in 1987, putting an end to Peres’ diplomatic efforts.

Likud won the 1988 elections and formed another national unity government, in which Shamir was prime minister and Peres was finance minister. Labor returned to power in 1992 under Rabin. Peres was appointed foreign minister. His deputy, Yossi Beilin, oversaw secret talks with the PLO, which led to the signing of an agreement between Peres and Mahmoud Abbas in 1993 in Oslo and the festive ceremony at the White House in September that year, attended by Rabin, Arafat, Clinton, Peres and Abbas. Peres, Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. During this period Peres spoke repeatedly of a “New Middle East.”

Peres stood next to Rabin at the 1995 peace rally in Tel Aviv, at which Rabin was assassinated. Peres was appointed prime minster, and Israel entered one of the most difficult periods in its history, including a series of terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas across Israel, killing dozens of Israelis.

Peres’ response, convening a peace conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, did not satisfy the public.

'Am I a loser?'

The veteran Peres faced a young opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu in the elections that year. These were the first elections with two ballots, one for prime minister and one for the parties. Likud’s campaign warned that “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” and repeatedly aired footage of his handshake with Arafat. Peres lost the election to Netanyahu by 30,000 votes. He was consequently embarrassed at the Labor Party conference in 1997 when he asked, “What, am I a loser?” and the audience responded, “Yes!”

After losing the elections, Peres founded the Peres Center for Peace. In the 1999 elections, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak rose to power and appointed Peres as minister for regional cooperation. Peres lost the 2000 presidential election in the Knesset to Moshe Katzav.

“There was something tragic within him, a measure of Job without the mentality of Job,” wrote writer S. Yizhar about him. In 2001 Ariel Sharon defeated Barak, but Peres led Labor’s entry into the government, which was established at the peak of the second intifada. Sharon appointed him deputy prime minister and foreign minister. At the end of 2002, Labor left the coalition, and Peres resigned his position.

Labor lost in the 2003 election, and Peres again brought his party into the Sharon government, in order to support disengagement from Gaza. In 2005, Amir Peretz defeated Peres in the primary, and took Labor out of the government. Peres responded by quitting the party for good.

In the following election, he ran with the Kadima party, which had been established by Sharon, i, and was appointed vice prime minister and minister for the development of the Negev, Galilee and regional economy in the Olmert government.

Peres was elected Israel’s ninth president in 2007 and immediately achieved star status around the world. During this period, Peres and the team around him turned him into an international brand and a desired guest in important conferences and events across the globe. His image as the loser, the wheeler-dealer and the “indefatigable subversive” was relegated to the past, and was replaced by an image of a man of vision, optimism and vitality.

Shimon Peres looks on during the opening of the 'Mini World Cup for Peace' in Herzliya, Israel, May 9, 2016.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

Still, fame also has its price. On his 90th birthday, Peres was criticized for the extravagant party he organized for himself. Later, when he finished his term as president, his image was damaged after it was revealed that he had been hired for a substantial fee to advance Bank Hapoalim’s interests. Peres then dedicated himself to public service through the Peres Center for Peace and to advising various companies.

'I am like a hunter'

“I implemented most of the ideas I believed in,” Peres said at the time. “It took time. It was hard, but they were implemented. Some of those ideas looked crazy at the time. It’s hard for me to describe the skepticism and resistance they met, like the aircraft industries matter, or Entebbe, or the nuclear issue, France, technology, Oslo – I saw all these things, I believed in them, I fought for them, I paid a price they always criticize me, they tried to impose on me other intentions and to lower my voice. I wasn’t frightened.”

He added: “I am like a hunter – when a hunter wants to catch a bird, he shoots a few meters in front of it. The bird advances to where you have fired. My job as I understand it is to shoot in front of the target because if you fire at the target, you will miss it. My whole way of thinking is to look ahead.”

When asked to advise the younger generation, he said: “Every person needs to know that he has much greater potential inside him than he is aware of, and he had better develop it. I am for being curious. I do not know a man that utilized all his potential, even if he reached very great heights.” Peres added: “Between the past and the future, leave the past, don’t get stuck in it. First of all because it is never accurately described and besides, many times when speaking of the future it is basically already the present.”

His greatest weakness

In Peres’ biography, writer Amos Oz sums up the leader’s personality. “His greatest weakness is the unquenchable thirst for love,” Oz said. “If he goes to meet with a group of settlers, he needs them to love him. If he meets with a group of post-Zionist radicals, he needs them to love him, too. Sometimes, the two meetings happen the same day.”

Oz added: “When he doesn’t find love he is deeply hurt, but he censors his behavior. He has no capacity for great rage at his detractors and his principal critics. Instead, he produces forced explanations, and sometimes also twists, anything not to lose the love In a place where a diplomat has to maneuver between two rows of spitting and rotten eggs with clenched teeth and stiff lips, Shimon could not restrain himself his whole life from turning to the people throwing eggs and spitting to tell them – but you should have loved me. If only you understood me, you would love me.”

Oz continued: “His ability to grasp his situation, his inexhaustible creative ability, his talent to open a window in a windowless wall, to find a crack where others only see a cement wall, to tie things that other see as impossible to tie – something people teased him about and called him a dreamer – that is his greatness. He has more vision and imagination than Ben-Gurion and any other Israeli politician I’ve known. He also has the ability to rise very high above the picture and to see it from a satellite’s vantage point. But it doesn’t prevent him from sometimes going down to marginal and boring microscopic details, and to remain on the one hand in the satellite and on the other on the ground. He is not an indefatigable troublemaker. He is not a good politician, but below average. What they said about him – the troublemaker, the trickster, the chess player who thinks 20 moves ahead – it’s not true.”

One love

Peres’ relationship with his wife Sonia had its ups and downs and ended with separation, when she didn’t move in with him into the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in the last chapter of his political life. Peres at the time discussed the romantic side of his life. “I easily fell in love. I was a man in love my whole life. I loved entirely, fully, steeped in rich imagination,” he mused. “The girl I loved that whole period – I never loved anyone but one girl – looked perfect to me. And the unavoidable conclusion was that I am not worthy of her. Thus, I held back from revealing my love, and I would suffer in secret. I barely overcame this inhibition, [managing to] just once and it was my greatest and lasting love. The girl I loved was my lifetime ally.”

Shimon and Sonia Peres, October, 1984.Credit: Nati Harnik / GPO

On another occasion, he said: “I really love beautiful women. I won’t say a word beyond that because I am not seeking sensations.”

Sonia died in 2011. Peres is survived by their three children: Dr. Tzvia Walden, a linguist, Yoni Peres, a veterinarian, and Chemi, a businessman, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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