Sonya Peres, Israel's Backstage First Lady, Passes Away at 87

Sonya Peres, President Shimon Peres' wife of 67 years, died yesterday, at the age of 87, in her north Tel Aviv home.

Peres is survived by her husband, their three children, Tzvia, Yonatan, and Hemi, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Peres Sonia GPO
Government Press Office

Her son-in-law and physician, Dr. Raphael Walden, told Israel Radio she died peacefully in her sleep.

Sonya and Shimon Peres' love and friendship became a symbol over the years. But in the past two decades their ways parted, and when he was elected president, she stayed in their Ramat Aviv apartment, refusing to join him at the President's Residence in Jerusalem.

An extremely private person, she shunned the limelight and rarely appeared in public, consistently refusing to give interviews. In recent years, she reportedly gave up the name Peres and took the surname Gel, an abbreviation of her maiden name. Shortly before Peres became president in 2007, Sonya was briefly hospitalized for a heart condition, but otherwise was not known to be ill.

Born in the Ukraine in 1923, Sonya Gelman made aliyah to Palestine with her family at the age of four. They moved to the Ben Shemen youth village, where she met her future husband.

"Sonya captivated his heart with her beauty, but also with the simplicity, warmth and sincerity she radiated," Michael Bar Zohar wrote in his biography of Peres:

"He overcame his shyness and started talking to her. She used to visit him at the outpost where he guarded at night, and he tried to impress her by reading literary texts to her in the moonlight."

During World War II, Sonya Peres volunteered to serve in the British Army and fight against the Germans. When she returned to Israel after the war, in 1945, she joined Kibbutz Alumot, of which Shimon Peres was one of the founders, and the two were wed.

At first, she played the role of a politician's wife. In the '60s, she drove her husband to political gatherings throughout the country and even sewed curtains for Rafi, the party that split off from Mapai. Those curtains decorated the party's Tel Aviv branch on Hayarkon Street. When Shimon Peres joined the cabinet in 1969, she played the "minister's wife." But over the years she took on a backstage role in her husband's six-decade political career.

After Labor's defeat in the 1981 elections, some say Sonya's inconspicuousness during the campaign was significant: "Her absence at his side caused him severe political damage," Bar Zohar wrote. "Her charming personality would have undoubtedly added another dimension to her husband, and instead of the slightly sad, lonely man, many would have seen a loving and warm couple."

When Peres was elected prime minister in 1984, Sonya withdrew from all political activity and did not join her husband on official trips abroad.

One of Sonya Peres' last public appearances was in April 1990, when she attended the somewhat awkward swearing in of the government then constructed by her husband. She sat in the VIP section, looking on as the Haredi factions sabotaged the cabinet's formation, leading to the meeting's eventual dispersal.

Once, when why she chose to stay out of the public eye, Sonya Peres said:" I married a dairy farmer."

Before he was sworn in as president in 2007, Shimon Peres told her on the phone: "Sonya, you'll have to get used to my changing jobs again. I was a dairy farmer, also worked in the fields, but today there's no demand for dairy farmers."

Speaking in the Knesset after being sworn-in as president, Peres spoke of her as "the love of my life" and said her heart disease "revealed to me how much I love her."