Shimon Peres was one of the longest-serving and most distinguished politicians in Israel, having been active in politics for more than half a century. Peres was the first person in Israel to have served both as Prime Minister (1984 – 1986 and 1995 – 1996) and President (2007 – 2014). He represented four parties: Mapai (1959 – 1965), Rafi (1965 – 1968), Labor (1968 – 2005), and Kadima (2005 – 2016).
As Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres helped negotiate the Oslo Accord with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). For their efforts, Rabin, Peres, and Arafat jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski on August 2, 1923 on Wiszniew, Poland (which is present-day Vishnyeva, Belarus). He came from a well-to-do family.
Here’s an interesting side note about Peres’ family: he was actually related to Hollywood star Lauren Bacall, whose real name was Betty Joan Perske (with “e” instead of “i” in Shimon’s “Perski”). While Bacall later said that they were cousins, Peres never made the same claim because he wasn’t exactly sure what their relation was.
In 1932, when he was 11, Peres and his family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv. Then he attended agricultural high school at Ben Shemen Youth Village.
Like many other European Jews who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, Peres worked in the fields. Then, in 1945, he married his childhood sweetheart Sonya Gelman, whom he met at Ben Shemen, where her father worked as a carpentry teacher; they would have three children together.
In 1947, he and his Ben Shemen schoolmates founded the Kibbutz Alumot.
Military career and early ministerial roles
Also, in 1947, Peres joined the Zionist underground army Haganah, which would become today’s Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Under the direction of David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s founding father, Peres was responsible for handling the personnel and arms purchases. At the time of Israel’s independence as a state in 1948, he was appointed head of Israel’s navy.
Peres assumed the position of director of Israel’s defense ministry delegation in the United States. While in the U.S., Peres studied English, philosophy, and economics at New York University and then management at Harvard.
In 1952, Peres was appointed deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense. At 29 years old, he was the youngest person to be assigned to that position, which he would hold until 1959.
In 1959, Peres was appointed deputy defense minister, which he would hold until 1965. During his term as deputy defense minister, he was responsible for boosting state weapons production, initiated a nuclear research program, and established military alliances overseas, especially with France.
Early political career
Peres formally entered Israeli politics in 1965. He resigned from his post as deputy defense minister to join David Ben-Gurion’s newly formed party Rafi in opposition to the succeeding Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol. In 1967, Peres became instrumental in merging Rafi and another political party, Mapai, into the new Israeli Labor Party (or simply, Labor), in which he was appointed secretary-general.
In 1969, Peres was appointed Minister of Immigrant Absorption. He also undertook duties for the development of the disputed territories. He served as Minister of Transport and Communications from 1970 to 1974 and for a brief time as Minister of Information in 1974 under Prime Minister Golda Meir. After that, Peres was appointed Minister of Defense under the new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
One of the most significant and dramatic incidences during Peres’s term as defense minister was the “Operation Entebbe” (also known as “Operation Thunderbolt”) in July 1976. Peres and Prime Minister Rabin approved the counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission. In this bold and meticulously planned operation, the IDF commando squad successfully rescued 103 Israeli airline passengers from the radical Palestinian and German hijackers at the Entebbe Airport, Uganda.
As Prime Minister
In 1977 Peres was appointed head of the Labor Party. That year, he served briefly as Acting Prime Minister as Rabin resigned in the wake of a scandal involving his and his wife’s ownership of a joint U.S. dollar bank account.
As a Prime Minister candidate, Peres was defeated twice (in 1977 and 1981) by Menachem Begin of the right-wing Likud party. He finally became Prime Minister after the 1984 elections ended indecisively. Following his win, he proposed the establishment of a unity government.
Peres entered a rotation arrangement with Yitzhak Shamir, the head of Likud. In this power-sharing agreement, Peres would serve as Prime Minister for the first half of a 50-month term, with Shamir acting as deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. After that, they would trade roles for the remaining 25 months.
During Peres’ first term as Prime Minister, Israel pulled out its forces in 1985 from their controversial incursion into Lebanon.
The 1988 elections, like the 1984 elections, also ended indecisively, leading both Labor and Likud parties to form another coalition government. In this arrangement, Shamir became Prime Minister while Peres became Minister of Finance. However, this coalition lasted only until 1990 when Likud was able to form a government without Labor support.
Peres focused his energies on reviving Israel’s declining economy and on the complicated situation resulting from the 1982 Lebanon War. He succeeded in gathering the support of the Histadrut (Israel’s trade union) for the complex steps needed to cut down the inflation rate from 400% to 16%. He was also instrumental in the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from Lebanon and the establishment of a narrow security zone in southern Lebanon.
Following Labor Party’s return to power as a result of the 1992 elections, Peres was appointed once again as Minister of Foreign Affairs. After the Oslo Accords was signed in 1993, Peres took care of the negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) regarding the details of the pact’s implementation. The efforts won Peres, Rabin, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize (above picture).
Peres assumed the position of Prime Minister in November 1995 following Rabin’s assassination. In May 1996, he sought a re-election bid for Prime Minister. But in a surprise outcome, a young Likud chairman named Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly defeated Peres for the position.
He continued to serve as Labor party chairman until 1997 when former chief-of-staff Ehud Barak succeeded him.
Post-prime minister career
While Peres did not seek re-election as leader of the Labor party, he nevertheless remained active in politics. He served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2001 to 2002. In 2005 he served as vice prime minister under the national unity government led by Ariel Sharon.
He was appointed as Vice Premier in January 2005. The following November, Peres was defeated by Amir Pertz in the elections for the Labor Party leadership. He subsequently announced he was leaving the Labor Party, after 38 years, to support Sharon and his new Kadima party. Peres was appointed Vice Prime Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee in 2006.
In June 2007, The Knesset (Israeli parliament) elected Peres as the country’s 9th President for a seven-year term — the first in Israel’s history that a former Prime Minister was also elected as President.
In 2008, Peres received the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, an honorary knighthood from England’s Queen Elizabeth II. In 2012, Peres was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama for his “meritorious contributions for world peace.”
In 2013, Peres announced that he had no plans to extend his presidential term beyond 2014. He was succeeded by Reuven Rivlin, who was elected in June 2014 and took office the following July.
Retirement, death, character, and legacy
Following his retirement from politics, Peres established the “Israel innovation center” in Ajami, an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, with the aim of encouraging young people from around the world to get interested in technology.
In September 2016, Peres suffered a severe stroke. He passed away two weeks later, on the 28th. He was 93 years old.
Shimon Peres was a polyglot who fluently spoke Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, Russian, English, and French. He was also a poet and a songwriter; he would sometimes get inspired to write even during cabinet meetings. Many of his poems have been made into songs, with proceedings going to charity. His other interests included French literature and Chinese philosophy.
He authored 11 books, including Ben Gurion: A Political Life (2011), Battling for Peace: A Memoir (1995), Entebbe Diary (1991), and David’s Sling (1970).
Peres was among the first Israeli politicians to embrace the use of the Internet and social media. Before the 1996 elections, Peres promoted the use of the Internet and was the first Israeli Prime Minister to have an official website. During the last few years of his life, he used YouTube and social media to connect himself to the public, producing often comedic but meaningful videos. His online campaign, which encouraged kids to study mathematics, went viral.
Peres’ role in signing the Israeli and Palestinian peace accords in the 1990s will remain the highlight of his long political career. Yet, while his supporters celebrate his legacy as a man of peace, his detractors, especially the Palestinians, would view it with skepticism.
Together with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres was responsible for approving Operation Entebbe in 1976. The success of the hostage rescue mission boosted his image and approval rating with the public. Operation Entebbe would go down as one of the most daring counter-terrorist rescue hostage missions in history.