Skip to main content

Israeli President Shimon Peres in New York, March 1, 2012.TODD HEISLER/The New York Times

If he were judged only on how he fared in politics, Shimon Peres, who died on Wednesday at the age of 93, two weeks after a stroke, would go down as a relatively minor figure in Israel's history.

Although he had one of those can't-miss pedigrees – roots in the Zionist movement that led to the creation of the state of Israel, successes in wars, and even the mentoring of Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion – real political power proved elusive. And when Mr. Peres did get it, he couldn't hold on to it.

Three times he occupied the office of prime minister, though never did he get there by way of a resounding win at the polls.

Read more: Shimon Peres, Israel's hidden hawk, was the father of a nation's military might

He lost elections that were his for the taking; and he lost significant battles within his own party.

But the middling politician and accidental prime minister was a true champion in another arena that shaped the history of modern Israel. Mr. Peres was the guiding hand behind the historic peace agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993. And while that agreement so far has failed to lead to an independent Palestinian state and a peace treaty between it and Israel, the Oslo Accords, as it is known, remains the starting point for any two-state solution to this long-standing conflict.

With the world's attention diverted by formal peace talks that Israel and its enemies entered following the Gulf War of 1991, Mr. Peres opened a back channel – secretive talks in Norway. It was those talks between PLO officials and a small group of Israelis hand-picked by Mr. Peres that led to the first significant Israel-Palestinian agreement.

It was no small accomplishment. In months of negotiations that were the stuff of thriller movies – secret middle-of-the-night flights, negotiators whisked up back staircases, elaborate diversions – two of the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace were removed. Israel finally dealt with the PLO; and the PLO finally recognized the existence of the state of Israel.

What Mr. Peres started in Norway led to that famous handshake on the White House lawn between Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the PLO's Yasser Arafat. And it ultimately led to the Nobel Peace Prize the three men shared.

The agreement was finalized 70 years to the day after Shimon Peres was born – Aug. 2, 1923 – in the city of Vishniva, in what is now Belarus.

He would later say the town where he grew up, was "totally Jewish, and we were living neither in Poland nor in Russia. We were living in Israel from the day I was born, even before emigrating."

He moved to Palestine when he was 11, and spent his early years on a kibbutz. Politically active from a young age, he joined the Labour Youth Movement and eventually became its secretary. In 1947, he was recruited by the Haganah, or underground militia, where he met the man who was to play a huge part in his career.

Mr. Ben-Gurion, later Israel's first prime minister, put Mr. Peres into the high command of the Haganah. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Mr. Peres became head of Israel's navy, and continued the work he had begun for the Haganah of producing and procuring arms – no mean feat at a time when Western Allies were observing an embargo on providing most kinds of weapons either to Arab states or to Israel.

In 1951, Mr. Peres learned that Canada would sell Israel some surplus "25-pounders," a widely used type of portable artillery that Ottawa viewed as "defensive" and outside the embargo. The price for 30 of them, however, was $2-million, equivalent to about $20-million today and well beyond the young Israeli state's budget

Mr. Peres set off to Montreal to seek help from Sam Bronfman, the Seagram liquor baron and an influential man in Ottawa. Together, they rode to the capital in Mr. Bronfman's Cadillac to meet C.D. Howe, the powerful minister of trade and commerce, who was often called the "minister of everything."

Mr. Bronfman stormed into the minister's office and complained that the Israelis had no money and needed help.

"Howe was impressed and he cut the price in half," Mr. Peres later recalled.

On the way back to Montreal, a pleased Mr. Bronfman turned to the young Israeli and asked where he was going to get the other million.

"From you," Mr. Peres told him.

Mr. Peres is credited with establishing the Israeli defence and high-tech industries, and of creating the Jewish state's potent nuclear program. With help from France, Israel developed the capacity to produce nuclear warheads and bombs though to this day it refuses to confirm or to deny that it has done so. The very possibility that it possesses such weapons serves as a powerful deterrent, he believed.

Mr. Peres was first elected to Israel's parliament in 1959, and later helped form the coalition that would become the Labour Party.

He lost the party leadership to Mr. Rabin in 1974, and the pair endured a long, fractious relationship. Mr. Rabin once called him an "incorrigible schemer," a reputation that stuck.

In 1977, when Mr. Rabin had to resign over an illegal bank account his wife held, Mr. Peres became interim prime minister. But in subsequent elections, he couldn't win. And he wouldn't become prime minister again until 1984 when, following an election with an inconclusive result, Labour formed a unity government with the Likud Party. Mr. Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir served alternately as prime minister.

In 1992, he lost the party leadership again to Mr. Rabin.

He would have one more stint in the prime minister's office, following the assassination in 1995 of Mr. Rabin. But again, his time at the top would be short, his performance suspect. Mr. Peres called an election and entered the campaign with a huge lead in the polls. But he campaigned little – and ineffectively – and lost to Likud's new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his book, My Life, former U.S. president Bill Clinton recalled how the campaign represented a failure on the part of Mr. Peres, who was a victim of "American-style" attack ads: "Peres resisted the pleas of his supporters to answer the ads until the very end of the campaign, and by then it was too late. I thought Shimon had done a good job as prime minister, and he had given his entire life to the state of Israel, but in 1996, by a narrow margin, Netanyahu proved to be the better politician."

Mr. Peres had better peacemaking instincts.

As early as 1980, his "Gaza first" solution proposed returning the Gaza Strip to Arab control. And he had conceived a grand outline that would see the Middle East remodelled on the European Community, complete with a common market.

He also recognized that in the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, there was a real opening. In his book The New Middle East, he wrote: "We had reached one of those rare critical junctures that enable discerning statesmen to make a quantum leap in their thinking – and perhaps turn the tide of history."

But, with official peace talks in Washington making no progress, he proposed using Norwegian intermediaries to set up more intimate talks. Mr. Rabin was skeptical but let him go ahead.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Mr. Peres recalled how he convinced the dour prime minister. "I told him … negotiating [in public] is like trying to make love in the middle of the street. There are things that you have to keep in the dark."

It was illegal under Israeli law to meet with the PLO, so negotiations were kept a discreet distance from Mr. Rabin. The talks in countryside hotels and Norwegian guesthouses took place only after the principals were carefully delivered, often by circuitous routes, often in the dead of night, always in careful secrecy.

The back channel also posed a risk to the important relationship between Israel and its best friend, the United States. As sponsors of the public talks, how would they feel about their efforts being undermined by negotiations that were kept secret from them?

In her book Gaza First: The Secret Norway Channel to Peace Between Israel and the PLO, Jane Corbin writes of Mr. Peres's secret flight to the U.S. once the deal was done: "Over two years, Washington had invested millions of dollars and inestimable amounts of power and prestige in a high-profile peace initiative that had achieved almost nothing. Now the Israeli foreign minister, who had never courted American favour … [and Norway's foreign minister] were on their way to break a political bombshell to the most powerful government on Earth. No wonder they felt a little nervous."

Mr. Peres won approval from U.S. president Bill Clinton, but he never got the real peace that the Palestinian-Israeli agreement was intended to lead to.

Mr. Peres remained a fixture in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, for many more years. However, in 2005, when he lost the Labour Party chairmanship to Amir Peretz, he left the political movement of which he had been a part for 60 years and joined a new party, Kadima. It had been formed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to support his (and Mr. Peres's) plan to unilaterally withdraw all Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza.

"Kadima (meaning 'forward') saved the state of Israel," Mr. Peres later said. "A large part of the right agreed to a Palestinian state. I view this as a very great achievement."

It was Kadima in 2007 that nominated Mr. Peres for president of Israel, a position of ceremonial and moral importance, and he won the necessary parliamentary majority on the second ballot. He had served as a member of the Knesset for 48 years, the longest term of any Israeli parliamentarian and, during his seven-year term as president became the world's then-oldest head of state.

The Peres presidency was unlike that of any of his eight predecessors. While Mr. Peres remained loyal to the state and respectful of the prime ministers – Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu – who served during his presidential term, he used his age, experience and international status as a Nobel Prize laureate to speak out against some of the policies with which he disagreed.

Right from the start of his term, Mr. Peres had exceptional access to national security intelligence. He met regularly with the various heads of the security services and was privy to the most classified information – even his communications network was upgraded to allow the reception of encrypted material.

When Mr. Netanyahu was reportedly planning to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, Mr. Peres went public with his opposition to the idea, stressing the need to act with the United States (a position he shared with most of Israel's military leaders).

His comments brought a sharp rebuke from the prime minister's office: "Peres has forgotten what the president's job is," the statement said.

At various times he expressed opposition to the increasing level of violence carried out by Israeli settlers in the West Bank to Palestinian property and mosques, to anti-Arab legislation that was debated in the Knesset and to a petition by rabbis calling on Jewish Israelis not to sell or rent property to Arab Israelis.

The rabbis' petition, he said "creates a fundamental moral crisis in Israel which affects the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

Taking a leaf from his Oslo days, Mr. Peres even carried out secret negotiations in Jordan with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas with a view to reaching a final status agreement between the two sides. Mr. Peres later told Israeli television the two men had agreed on "nearly all points of dispute," including recognition of a Palestinian state and a Jewish state as well as a formula for resolving the refugee issue.

However, "Netanyahu stopped it," Mr. Peres said. The president was prevented from attending the final meeting with the Palestinian leader.

It was a surprising development, Mr. Peres said, since the prime minister had been "an accomplice to the negotiations at every step of the way."

Mr. Peres recalls good relations over the years with many Canadian political leaders, especially Pierre Trudeau.

On the day the two met, Mr. Trudeau invited him for lunch at his home, and surprised him by insisting on taking lunch outside on a blanket on the lawn. "We sat like two young children and had our lunch," Mr. Peres said.

"And then we developed a really good friendship."

The Israeli President laughs when he recalls the time Mr. Trudeau called him out of the blue from Libya, where the Canadian was meeting one of Israel's greatest enemies, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, in the desert.

In 1945, Mr. Peres had married his girlfriend, Sonya Gelman, who kept her distance from her husband's public life. The couple had two sons, Yonathan and Nehemia, a daughter, Zvia, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Ms. Peres died in 2011.