Shimon Peres, the last of his generation of Israel’s leaders, outlived his rivals and fiercest critics. A hawkish defense minister who for a time supported settlements, he became the prophet of peace and compromise. Once the most mocked and mistrusted of his country’s politicians, he became its most popular leader, almost certainly the best-known and most beloved Israeli in the world in this century.
In recent years the Israeli Presidential Conference — known simply as The Peres Conference — became a Jewish version of the Davos Economic Forum. It was a buzz-worthy annual extravaganza in Jerusalem that attracted thousands of delegates and dozens of world dignitaries, Nobel Prize winners, thought leaders and pop entertainers, primarily due to the aura and influence of Peres, who served as Israel’s president from 2007 until he retired in 2014 as the world’s oldest head of state.
Surrounded by headline-makers from Henry Kissinger to Sharon Stone to Barbra Streisand, who serenaded him on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebration in 2013, Peres was the star attraction at the forums, sharing his charming aphorisms on subjects from the political to the personal. At the 2012 conference, near the end of a session on learning from one’s mistakes, Peres said, “Close your eyes a little bit,” in warning against striving for perfection. “You cannot make love or peace with open eyes.”
Some would argue that he made peace with his eyes closed, winning a Nobel Peace Prize (along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat) for the 1993 Oslo Accord that was heralded with great expectations for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation but soon turned to violence. His 1993 book, “The New Middle East,” envisioned strong ties between Arab and Jew along with secure borders and a thriving economy.
While some called Peres a dreamer, others saw him as a visionary. Either way, he always focused on the future, and “Facing Tomorrow” was the theme of the last presidential conference he hosted as he turned 90.
Born Syzmon Perski in Poland, he came to Israel at the age of 11, and became a favored aide of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, credited with playing a decisive role in Israel’s becoming a nuclear power. During the course of a political career that spanned almost seven decades, Peres held numerous cabinet positions, including prime minister — once in a unique, shared rotation with Yitzhak Shamir, and for seven months following the death of Rabin in 1995.
The Peres-Rabin relationship was longstanding and complex. Rabin was a military hero and introvert; Peres, though a defense minister, never served in the IDF, and was far more outgoing. Like other political contemporaries, Rabin accused Peres of being self-centered and dishonest, taking credit for the accomplishments of others. But the two men grew close serving together in the early 1990s, with Rabin prime minister and Peres the foreign minister who helped negotiate the Oslo deal.
Peres mourned Rabin’s death, and though he could have held elections soon after that traumatic event and no doubt would have won, he chose to wait so as not to appear to be riding an emotional national wave of sympathy for their Labor Party and its peace efforts. That strategy backfired, though, when a deadly round of suicide bus bombings leading up to the national elections in 1996 found Israelis choosing the more hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu as their leader.
Perhaps of all the posts Peres held in his remarkable career, the most fitting and successful was as president, a non-political office that allowed him to express his views on an international platform. He came to symbolize Israel as Start-Up Nation, a leading advocate of creativity and brain power when natural resources were lacking. His enthusiasm and energy never flagged, and his optimistic nature never waned. “Concentrate all efforts on the future,” he said, at 88, at one of his conferences. “You are as young as your dreams. … Let the past rest quietly.”
One image we will remember with a smile is the final scene of a clever, creative and humorous six-minute video Peres’s granddaughter made with him two years ago as his outgoing presidential message — rather than “a book no one would read,” she told us at the time. It features Peres job-hunting after retiring from the presidency, with short scenes of him as a gas station attendant, supermarket clerk, and pizza delivery man — delivering lines that sum up his career and philosophy. In the last scene he parachutes from a plane with a frightened young man, telling him, “The future belongs to those who dare.”
Shimon Peres was a leader who dared to dream big, and, like the country he loved, he helped many dreams become reality.
May his memory be a blessing.