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Shimon Peres: From hawk to dove

With the passing of Shimon Peres on Sept. 28, Israel has lost the last of its major founding fathers.

Peres, 93, had a career in public service that spanned more than six decades. He held almost every senior post in Israeli politics, including those of prime minister and president.

An early hard-liner on Palestinian relations, Peres later became both the prime advocate for the Oslo peace process and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 1959, Peres rose steadily through a variety of ministerial posts, including information, defense, finance, and foreign minister, along with three stints as prime minister, in 1977, 1984-1985, and for seven months in 1995 and 1996.

He served as a member of the Knesset continuously for 48 years, except for one three-month period; it was the longest Knesset tenure in Israeli history, ending only in 2007, when he assumed the presidency.

Peres was first an advocate of David Ben-Gurion’s hawkish defence views. He was the one Israel’s first prime minister entrusted with crucial missions of national security.

In 1956 he negotiated the purchase from France of Israel’s first nuclear reactor, and oversaw the reactor’s secret construction in the Negev town of Dimona.

“It was natural that the people of post-war France, who had themselves tasted the bitterness of Nazi horror, should feel a kinship with the victims of Nazism who had suffered greater losses,” Peres wrote in his 1970 book David’s Sling: The Arming of Israel.

France agreed to provide the Jewish state with all of the knowledge, equipment, materials and manpower required for the project. Five years later Israel had its first nuclear bomb.

Peres felt that nuclear weapons were a necessary last resort for securing Israel’s long-term existence and security, at a time when all the Arab states were pledged to Israel’s destruction and were by and large aligned with the Soviet Union, a nuclear power.

But Peres underwent a transformation from hawk to dove. He said he was converted to “dovishness” after 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

By 1984 Peres was Israel’s leading advocate of a land-for-peace compromise. As foreign minister, he spearheaded the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The accords established limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza under a new Palestinian Authority, led by PLO Chair Yasser Arafat.

In 1994 Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat for his role in crafting the deal.

Two years later he founded the Peres Centre for Peace, an organization promoting peace-building between Israel and its neighbours, especially the Palestinians and Jordan, as well as between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

In November 2001 Peres told the United Nations General Assembly that in Israel, “there is support for a Palestinian independence, support for a Palestinian state,” even though it was not yet government policy.

As reports became more frequent a few years ago that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning to attack Iran’s nuclear installations, Peres came out in opposition to it.

“I stopped Netanyahu from attacking Iran,” Peres told Steve Linde of the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 24, 2014.

In April 2013, Peres announced that he would not seek to extend his tenure beyond 2014. At age 90, he was at the time the oldest head of state in the world.

But animosity toward Israel remains strong in the Arab world, especially at a time of deadlock in peace efforts, and Peres is still associated with wars and settlement construction that took place during his lengthy career.

The 13 members of the Knesset’s Joint List, a political alliance of four Israeli Arab parties, did not attend his funeral.

“I will not take part in this celebration of 1948, of the nuclear reactor,” said Joint List chair Ayman Odeh. “All of those events were tragedies.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attended, but Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, criticized him and told Iranian television “I hope he joins Peres in hell.”


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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