Shimon Peres biography
Date of birth : 1923-08-02
Date of death : 2016-09-28
Birthplace : Wiszniewo, Poland
Nationality : Polish
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2016-09-28
Credited as : Politician, President of Israel, World's political leader
Shimon Peres is one of Israel's longest-serving politicians and statesmen. For more than half a century, Peres has occupied influential positions in the Israeli Defense Ministry and headed a variety of government ministries, including repeated terms as defense minister and foreign minister. He also served as prime minister between 1984 and 1986, during the Labor-Likud national unity government, and as interim prime minister during the half year following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Peres was elected president of Israel in June 2007.
Peres was born in 1923 to a wealthy family in the small Belarussian town of Vishnive, which was then under Polish rule. His father was a lumber merchant, and his mother was a Russian teacher and librarian. Peres attended a Tarbut (Zionist) school that taught classes in modern Hebrew and Yiddish. Socially withdrawn, the young Peres read a great deal and excelled in his studies. As Vishnive was almost completely Jewish in population, Peres grew up in a Jewish bubble, with little significant contact with non-Jewish society.
Zionist enthusiasm motivated the Perski family to move to Palestine well before catastrophe befell the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust. Peres's father left in 1932 to establish a business and a home, and twelve-year-old Shimon and the rest of the family arrived in Tel Aviv in 1935. The young immigrant attended Balfour Primary School and the Ge'ula (Redemption) High School in Tel Aviv. In addition to his studies, Peres joined the Zionist social democratic youth movement Hano'ar Ha'oved V'halomed (Working and Studying Youth), his prestate political base, which he would eventually lead. In 1937, without the permission of his parents, Peres went to study at the Ben Shemen agricultural school near the Arab town of Lydda. At Ben Shemen, Shimon Perski--who never lost his foreign accent and who spent his entire life trying to fit in with his contemporaries who were born in Palestine--became an Israeli.
During World War II, Peres's father, already in his forties, joined the British army, was taken prisoner by the Germans, and returned to Palestine only after the end of the war. Peres, however, would never serve in the military. In 1940, seventeen-year-old Peres met Berl Katznelson, the spiritual leader of the Zionist labor movement at the time, and David Ben-Gurion, leader not only of Mapai (the Eretz Yisra'el Workers Party) but of the Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, the two closely linked organizations which spearheaded the Zionist campaign for a Jewish state in Palestine. This meeting had decisive implications for young Peres's political future.
While still at Ben Shemen, Peres met Sonia Gelman, whom he would marry in May 1945. In 1941 Peres moved to Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley, where he and a number of friends underwent agricultural training in order to eventually establish their own kibbutz. In contrast to his father, his girlfriend Sonia, and many friends who enlisted in the British army during the war, Peres refrained. He also did not join the Hagana, the semilegal military force of Palestine's organized Jewish community. He believed that the task of establishing a Jewish home in Palestine was just as important as fighting the Nazis. In 1942 Peres was one of the founders of Kibbutz Alumot in the Jordan Valley, southwest of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee). He spent his time working in farming and politics, and before reaching eighteen was recognized as an influential and promising political actor.
Political Ambitions and Weapons Acquisition
Although his generation tended to play down individual political ambition, this was not the way of young Peres. His steadfastness and organizational skills brought him success in the internal struggle within the Zionist labor movement over who would control its large youth movement: Peres's mentor and leader Ben-Gurion, or Yitzhak Tabenkin, leader of the United Kibbutz Movement faction, which had just split from Mapai. He thus attracted the attention of the Mapai leadership, which soon became the leadership of the State of Israel. In May 1947 Peres was drafted by the Hagana and, under the supervision and guiding hand of then Jewish Agency treasurer Levi Eshkol, was placed in charge of human resource management and weapons purchasing. Following this assignment, he was charged with acquiring weapons for the newly formed Israeli navy. In this capacity, with Eshkol (a later finance, defense, and prime minister), Peres embarked upon the undertaking that would occupy him for the next two decades: the construction of Israel's military might. While doing so, Peres did not participate in the 1948 War--Israel's "War of Independence"--as a soldier. This biographical detail remained an obstacle throughout his political career, though his work contributed to the Israeli war effort.
Because he did not speak English and had received only a partial education, Peres asked Ben-Gurion to enable him to travel to the United States for academic study. Characteristically, he did not wait for an offer, but rather offered himself. He was appointed as the deputy director of the Israeli Defense Ministry's delegation in New York and quickly took over as its director. In the evenings, he pursued his studies. One important outcome of Peres's work in the United States was Israel Aerospace Industries, which he established with the help of the ideas, people, and budgets he mobilized there. Although only twenty-eight years old when he returned to Israel, Peres was integrated by Ben-Gurion into the senior echelon of the Defense Ministry. This paved Peres's path into Israel's political elite.
In December 1953, just before (temporarily) retiring, Ben-Gurion appointed Moshe Dayan as chief of the General Staff, and Peres as director general of the Defense Ministry. Until the 1967 War, these Ben-Gurion protégés would be Ben-Gurion's most important loyalists in the defense establishment and Israeli politics. This was especially true of Peres, who was younger, lower ranking, and less independent than Dayan. To the dismay of Pinhas Lavon, who replaced Ben-Gurion as defense minister, Peres rapidly became the most powerful force within the defense ministry.
Protégé of Ben-Gurion
Peres's loyalty to Ben-Gurion and his evolving alliance with Dayan made him an active participant in contemporary political and diplomatic debates. His personal and political interest in Ben-Gurion's return and his close relationship with Dayan made him an enthusiastic supporter of Dayan's alternatives to the security policies of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett. While Sharett strived to maintain the post-1948 status quo to reach a peace agreement with the Arab world, Dayan believed that peace could only be achieved through a second round of warfare, strengthening of Israel's military, modification of the 1949 borders, and "peacemaking" from a position of strength.
With characteristic enthusiasm and thoroughness, Peres worked to bridge the gap between Dayan and Ben-Gurion. He persuaded Ben-Gurion to return from retirement by stressing the importance of Dayan's approach, which contradicted that of Sharett, Ben-Gurion's political rival. In February 1955 Ben-Gurion returned to the defense ministry and in November 1955 to the prime minister's office. From that point on, Peres functioned more as a diplomat than as an official charged with weapons acquisition, in order to promote Dayan's idea of an Israeli-initiated war. Peres's role in this effort was critical, as Ben-Gurion's precondition for an Israeli-initiated war was a superpower alliance and a substantial arms deal. With the help of his determined mediation, connections, and personal charisma, Peres provided both in the form of a 1956 Israeli-French alliance and arms deal. Sharett was forced to leave the government, and the way was now open for an Israeli-initiated war. When the Suez crisis erupted in July 1956, Israel was ready.
Peres's political influence increased significantly after the Suez-Sinai war of October-November 1956, when Israel joined with France and Britain in attacking Egypt. This was not only due to his role in arming Israel and making the political preparations for the war. Since his first encounter with arms purchases and the weapons industry, Peres had been fascinated by the nuclear option. Ben-Gurion was an important influence on Peres in this realm as well, as was Peres's time in the United States. Peres led Israeli efforts to acquire a functioning nuclear reactor even before the Israeli-French alliance, but these efforts intensified after 1956. Israel's alliance with France and Britain in their joint effort to reimpose their will on a former colonial dependency raised Israel's standing in the eyes of the two European powers. One important outcome of the 1956 war was the construction of the nuclear reactor at Dimona, for which France provided Israel with the knowledge and the means, primarily between 1956 and 1958. Since then, Peres has staunchly supported the view that Israel must possess nuclear weapons and has never deviated from this policy. (It is worth pointing out, however, that Israel has never officially acknowledged possessing nuclear weapons.)
Owing to his political and diplomatic success, Peres was elected to the Knesset in 1959 and appointed as deputy defense minister. He served in this capacity under Ben-Gurion until June 1963 and under Eshkol until 1965, when he and other Ben-Gurion loyalists seceded from Mapai to establish Rafi (List of the Workers of Israel), an alternative party that aimed at replacing Mapai at the helm of government. As Rafi's director general, Peres held significant political influence within the new party, alongside Dayan and Teddy Kollek. From then until the outbreak of war in June 1967, Peres led the opposition to the Eshkol government within the Knesset and the Israeli labor movement. That Eshkol had supervised and supported him when he first entered the Israeli defense establishment in 1947 did not stop Peres, who, like his mentor Ben-Gurion, viewed Eshkol and his government as a disaster to be overcome by all necessary political means. But Rafi won only ten Knesset seats, making Peres's work extremely difficult. The maneuvering of Peres, Dayan, Kollek, and their colleagues, referred to then and for many years to come as "the young ones," against Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Pinhas Sapir, who had established themselves as political leaders in mandatory Palestine, was also very much a generational conflict.
The 1967 War
The June 1967 Arab-Israeli War presented Peres with an unprecedented opportunity to strike a blow at Eshkol's power base and to lead the Ben-Gurion loyalists back into power. Peres and his colleagues made effective use of the sense of crisis and fear that seized Israeli society before the war to present Dayan as a miracle cure. On 2 June 1967, Eshkol established a national unity government with Dayan as defense minister. Three days later the war broke out, and although they were not involved in the preparations, Peres and his colleagues were credited with the victory. Peres, however, did make important contributions to the development of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) between 1948 and 1965, and this made him a legitimate partner in the Israeli victory. Now Peres aimed at taking over the ruling party from within. It was clear that Ben-Gurion, then more than eighty years old, could no longer represent an alternative to Mapai. Peres left his elderly mentor with only a handful of supporters and, with the vast majority of Rafi members, joined the united Israeli Labor Party upon its establishment in January 1968.
After the 1969 elections, won by Labor, Peres served as a government minister for the first time. During the seventh Knesset (1969-1973), Peres served successively as minister of immigrant absorption, minister of transportation, minister of communication, and supervisor of economic development in the occupied West Bank. During the eighth Knesset (1973-1977), he served as minister of information. In 1974, during the political storm that overtook Israeli politics in the aftermath of the 1973 War, Peres replaced Dayan as defense minister. Peres had not occupied a position of central importance in the government or the defense ministry during the war, leaving him untainted by the military failure. When Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned later the same year, Peres ran against Yitzhak Rabin for the position of prime minister, and lost by a small margin. This was the beginning of a long and bitter rivalry between the two men.
Peres continued to serve as defense minister in Rabin's government until 1977. In this capacity, he provided technical and political support for the radical messianic settlers of Gush Emunim in their periodic bids to establish renegade settlements in parts of the West Bank where, according to government policy, settlements were not sanctioned. He also took part in the decision to carry out "Operation Thunderbolt" in July 1976 to free the passengers, mostly Israelis, of a hijacked plane being held at the Entebbe, Uganda airport. When Rabin resigned as prime minister in the midst of a domestic political scandal, Peres took over as acting prime minister and Labor Party chairman, a position he retained until 1992.
In the elections of 1981, as head of the Labor Alignment list, Peres lost again, this time to the right-wing Likud bloc leader Menachem Begin. In the national unity government established after the 1984 elections, Peres served as prime minister for two years, until the power-sharing rotation that replaced him with Likud party chief Yitzhak Shamir. During this period, Peres spearheaded the redeployment of Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon in 1982 into a "security zone" in southern Lebanon. He also worked closely with Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda'i to reduce the triple-digit inflation then plaguing the Israeli economy.
In 1987, while serving as foreign minister, Peres initiated contacts with King Hussein of Jordan to discuss the possibility of an Israeli return of the West Bank. Prime Minister Shamir, however, rejected the understandings that later came to be known as the London Document. In 1988, during the second unity government, Peres served as finance minister and deputy prime minister. In 1990 he led the vote of no confidence against Shamir's government from within, with support of the Jewish religious parties in the Knesset. But Peres's subsequent attempt to form a new government with himself at the helm, without holding new elections--an act that quickly came to be known as "the dirty trick"--ultimately failed, and he was forced to resign from the government and to lead Labor back into opposition.
Oslo and After
In preparation for the 1992 elections, the Labor Party chose Rabin over Peres as party chairman. After Labor's electoral victory, Peres, as foreign minister, oversaw the secret negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that ultimately resulted in the 1993 Declaration of Principles, or Oslo Accord. He also played a part in achieving the subsequent peace treaty with Jordan. During the Rabin government of 1992-1995, Peres and Rabin finally managed to overcome their longstanding rivalry and to maintain a fruitful working relationship.
After Rabin's assassination, Peres assumed the posts of prime minister, defense minister, and minister of finance and planning. In 1996, in yet another electoral bid against the Likud, this time as an incumbent in Israel's first direct election for prime minister, Peres lost to Binyamin Netanyahu. The next year, he decided not to run in the Labor primaries for party chairman, and Ehud Barak replaced him in this position. Despite tensions between the two, Barak reserved a seat for Peres in the Labor-led "One Israel" Knesset list in the 1999 national elections. After the Labor victory, Barak appointed Peres to the newly created post of minister for regional cooperation.
In 2000 Peres ran for the primarily ceremonial position of president of Israel, but lost in a Knesset vote to Moshe Katzav. In March 2001 Peres was again appointed as foreign minister in a national unity government formed by Likud leader Ariel Sharon during the second Palestinian intifada in the Occupied Territories. In June 2003 Peres was elected provisional Labor Party chairman and again led the opposition in the Knesset. In January 2005, the Labor Party joined the Sharon government, and Peres was appointed vice prime minister.
In November 2005 Peres lost to Amir Peretz in the elections for Labor Party chairman. A few weeks later, he announced his resignation from the Labor Party and his decision to join Kadima, the party recently established by Sharon to counter the internal Likud rebellion in the wake of his 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. After the 2006 Knesset elections, Peres was appointed minister of Negev and Galilee development. On 13 June 2007 the Knesset elected him president of Israel.
Influences and Contributions
Peres played a decisive role in establishing and developing the Israeli defense establishment, and until the 1980s was closely associated with the security-activist wing of the Labor Party. However, from the 1980s onward, he also emerged as a key leader of the Israeli "peace camp," and in this capacity played an important role in the Oslo Accord and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. For these activities, Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with Rabin and Yasir Arafat in 1994. Perhaps equally important, Peres also helped extricate the Israeli economy from crisis and recession and lead it to growth. As a politician, Peres was repeatedly defeated in Israeli national elections for prime minister. Nonetheless, throughout his generations-spanning career, he never left the political arena. Despite his advanced age, he continues to play an important role in Israeli government and politics.
The World's Perspective
Despite Peres's central role in building Israel's military might and nuclear capabilities during the formative decades of Israeli statehood, Peres is best known in the international realm for the Arab-Israeli peace activism that has characterized his career since the mid-1980s. Today, with personal connections with dozens of heads of government, diplomats, politicians, and intellectuals around the world, he is by far the most well-respected international Israeli statesman.
Peres and his policies reflect the constant Israeli efforts--which have been underway since the establishment of the state--to find an effective balance between leaders' desire for both "security" as a Jewish state and peace. Since the 1980s he has promoted the approach that Israel's military and economic power must be focused on signing treaties with its Arab neighbors and with the Palestinians. In 1997 he established the Peres Center for Peace, which supports implementation of his vision of "a new Middle East." He has published a number of books, including The Next Step (1965), David's Sling (1970), Entebbe Diary (1991), and The New Middle East (1993).