Shimon Peres Pursued Peace for the Sake of Israel's Values, and for Palestinians' Human Dignity

Shimon Peres was a relentless optimist and a tough and resourceful patriot. He sought peace for Israel's long-term security, and out of a profound compassion for the Palestinians to fulfill their destiny through statehood.

Tony Blair (R) with Israel's President Shimon Peres. 2007
Eliana Aponte, Reuters

Shimon was, in my experience, unique in politics. He was a visionary for sure. But the term doesn't really do that extraordinary mind justice. New ideas, new ways of thinking, new plans for changing the world, coursed through his political veins as his life blood, giving him boundless energy as the rest of us tried in vain to keep up.

He never relented, not from the first to the last, in his essential optimism that the vision he had for Israel and the world – compassionate, creative and connected across all the manifold divisions of culture, faith and race – could and would be realised.

His childhood and upbringing, his part in the founding of Israel in the turbulent and frightening circumstances of the mid-20th century would naturally have shaped the character of any man and in a special way.

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 generation which brought the State of Israel into being were a remarkable mix of idealism, realism, foresight and simple, plain, hard core determination.

But these qualities were blended together in a very particular way in Shimon Peres.

I met him when he was already renowned as a peacemaker and statesman. I remember our first conversation. I had read about him and was intrigued to see him. I was still relatively young in the travails of leadership and not yet Prime Minister.

After it, when asked what it had been like, I said it was the most unusual meeting I had had up to that point in my short diplomatic career. “Did you discuss the peace process?” “Of course,” I replied, “but actually we discussed the world and in a manner which made me think about it completely differently.”

Shimon could never have played the part he did in the defense of Israel, in the early work he did with Ben-Gurion and others without being a tough and resourceful patriot, hard headed and unyielding in what needed to be done to secure and protect the State in its infancy.

However this necessary steel never led him to dismiss the prospect for peace or to cease continuing with equal resolve to pursue it, even when it seemed beyond reach.

He did this of course because he genuinely believed that the long-term security of Israel depended on peace with the Palestinians.

But he did it also out of a true and profound human compassion. Through war and uprising and turmoil he never considered his Palestinian neighbours as anything other than human beings, equal to himself, and deserving of their own destiny through Statehood.

This was to him not an unavoidable concession wrung out of reluctant necessity; but a demonstration of what he thought the values of the nation he had helped create, demanded.

This spirit – of generosity, respect for human dignity and a passionate belief in the equality of all – animated him and defined for him Israel, not just as a nation but as an ideal.

This lent him the strength to persevere; even when it did him political damage; even when a less scrupulous politician would have trimmed and traded his positions.

I recall speaking to him a short time back visiting him in that amazing and beautiful building down by the shore in Jaffa. He had a plan for peace as ever. But this time he also had a bold and imaginative plan for Gaza, for how it could have its port and airport without threatening Israel, how it could be rebuilt and helped into modernity and prosperity. It was typical Shimon: extravagantly courageous in design and execution, transformative and not palliative, seemingly too grand to do and yet when you reflected absolutely the right thing to do.

This was the Shimon I will remember and remain inspired by.

He had an inexhaustible capacity to absorb and analyse the world’s changes. Technology didn't frighten him. It thrilled him. He saw immediately all its possibilities and was confident they could be harnessed for good.

You could talk to him about peace – his frustrations and hopes. But you could talk to him about anything – American politics, China, Russia, Europe, religion, financial markets – and in each case he would have a perspective that would rise majestically above the contemporary challenges and see the world from a height which allowed you to measure its opportunities in ages and not in moments.

Then there was his way with words. I used to smile every time I would hear him speak – the rolling soundbites, the concepts and ideas strung together with masterful eclecticism, the short phrase that made you laugh and think at the same time.

In the coming days, the world and Israel will pay Shimon great respect as it should. The world will mourn a statesman. Israel will know what it has lost by his passing and what it will gain from his memory.

Shimon embodied much of what makes Israel a great nation and what makes the Jewish community round the globe contribute so much to the world’s prosperity and its creative advance.

“When you are a leader of a nation” he used to say to me “you inhabit the highest office in the land and the choice is always the same: do you want to go in the guest book or the history book?”

There is no doubt in which book his name will be found; and it will be written there with pride.  

Tony Blair is the former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and former Representative of the Middle East Quartet.