Philippe Agret, AFP
Last updated: 24 July, 2014

Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers

Shimon Peres, who stepped down as Israel’s 9th president Thursday, is the last of Israel’s founding fathers and a hawk-turned-dove whose international aura will be sorely missed by many Israelis.

Now 90, Peres has stood at the forefront of Israeli politics for 65 years, demonstrating resilience in the face of innumerable challenges.

He steps down as Israel was locked in yet another bloody battle with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in their worst confrontation in five years.

And with the nation mourning the deaths of 32 soldiers in just six days, the ceremony marking the end of his term in office and the inauguration of his successor, Reuven Rivlin, was much scaled down.

A Nobel Laureate and elder statesman who has carved out a reputation as a peacemaker, Peres has taken advantage of his largely ceremonial post to push a political message of peace, putting him at odds with Israel’s rightwing premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

With a political pedigree eclipsing any rival, Peres has held just about every major office in Israel in a career spanning nearly seven decades.

But, despite a career forged within Israel’s Labour party, Peres has not always been a man of peace.

Considered a party hawk from the start, Peres was quick to back the first Jewish settlements to be set up in the occupied West Bank in the 1970s when he was defence minister.

And during his second tenure as prime minister, when he also held the defence portfolio, he oversaw the April 1996 shelling of the Lebanese town of Qana, killing 106 civilians.

Born in Vishneva, Poland in 1923, Peres — then known as Szymon Perski — emigrated to Palestine at the age of 11 and joined the Haganah, the militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

A member of parliament since 1959, Peres headed the Labour party from 1977 until Yitzhak Rabin took over in 1992. He was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 and again in 1995-1996.

– Hawk turns dove –

Once a firm opponent of any compromise with hostile Arab states, Peres says he was converted after 1977, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

And in 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Rabin and then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his key role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Although widely admired abroad, Peres was something of an electoral liability, suffering defeat in general elections in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1996.

In addition to the premiership, he has also held the foreign, defence, finance, information and transport portfolios, but never led Labour to victory.

Peres gained a reputation for tenacity in the face of many challenges, picking himself up after every blow.

Israel owes to Peres its powerful armament and aeronautical industry. An architect of Israel’s military cooperation with France in the 1950s, he is considered the “father” of Israel’s nuclear programme.

When he was elected as Israel’s ninth head of state in 2007, it was a crowning triumph in the career of an octogenarian whose fortunes had reached a nadir two years earlier when he lost the Labour leadership and left the party.

And he has won plaudits in Israel for restoring the prestige of the presidency following the scandal surrounding former incumbent Moshe Katsav who is serving seven years in prison on two counts of rape and other sexual offences.

– ‘Read rather than eat’ –

Just two months shy of his 91st birthday, Peres is a man who takes care of his health. He once said the secret to his longevity lay in daily gymnastics, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.

“Everybody eats three times a day. You eat three times a day and you become fat. If you will read three times a day, you will become wise. Better to be wise than fat,” he told AFP in a December 2012 interview, saying he slept no more than four or five hours a night.

And even as the end of his term loomed, he showed no let up, travelling to the Vatican on June 10 to meet and pray with Pope Francis and his “partner for peace” Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

For most Israelis, Peres’s departure from office signifies the end of a era.

“Shimon Peres was an important president due to his special status in capitals around the world and because of the dignity that he restored at home in the aftermath of the Katsav affair,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote on Sunday in an expression of widely felt regret.