Shimon Peres has worn a great many political hats. He seemed to take naturally to the office of President, swearing the oath in 2007. A former prime minister, a member in a dozen Israeli governments, representative of five political parties in the Knesset parliament over more than 60 years, he has been called both a dove and a hawk.
As head of state, which is a mostly ceremonial job, he nevertheless used his influence to promote peace, even if it bothered the nationalists. He often seemed the only person in high places who opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions.
But Peres wasn’t always a dove. He emigrated with his family from what was then Belarus, later Poland, in 1934, at age 11. He met David Ben Gourion while hitchhiking — the first prime minister of Israel — who kept the 25-year-old close. He’d been a dairy farmer, shepherd and kibbutz secretary by then, and was now assigned to international strategic relations development and armaments-buying in the defence ministry.
Several ministerial portfolios later, he was running it. And he didn’t look very dovish when he authorised the construction of the first Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank.
Yet as foreign minister in the government of his political rival and sometime opponent Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres was central to the conclusion with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of the Oslo Accords in 1993, on the lawn of the White House, assisted by US President Bill Clinton. The three Oslo heavyweights won the Nobel Peace Prize for that.
The Israeli peacemakers were side by side on stage when Rabin was assassinated in 1995, by a right-wing Israeli radical, who had meant to kill them both. Peres served as Acting Prime Minister and Acting Defence Minister until elections the following year, although later the Labour Party stalwart would face criticism from the left for sticking with a government that showed little progress with peace.
It was under his watch that the Israeli army, with artillery fire, killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians taking refuge in a UN compound, and wounding many more. The UN reported the action at Qana while fighting Hezbullah in south Lebanon probably wasn’t completely accidental.
After spending a few years in a desert of unpopularity, Peres came back, by now seen as increasingly dovish, far less the hawk.
Honoured with accolades, he insisted no one must hesitate for peace.
“I’m sure I shall see peace in my lifetime, even if I have to extend my life for a year or two. I won’t hesitate.”