Shimon Peres: The Last Link to Israel's Founding Fathers
The former prime minister and president was a first-hand witness and often a central participant in every moment in his country’s history.
The death of a statesman like Shimon Peres, who spent more than 60 years in public service, would mark a towering milestone in any nation. But in Israel, one of the world’s younger states, it takes on particular significance, as he represented one of the few remaining links to Israel’s founding generation. Peres, who was 93, was a first-hand witness and often a central participant in every moment in its history.
In addition to Israel’s youth—it’s less than 70 years old—and Peres’s longevity, the country’s political class has proven unusually long-lived, with leaders remaining part of government for decades on end. It helped that Peres belonged to the Labor Party, which dominated Israeli politics for decades, until a more recent period in the wilderness. It’s impossible to come up with an American analogue for Peres’s 67-year career. It would as though an aide-de-camp to George Washington had retired during the James Buchanan administration, after a career with turns as ambassador, secretary of state, and senator.
Peres was born in what was then Poland and what is now Belarus in 1923, but his family moved to Mandatory Palestine, then under British control, in 1932. When he arrived, he attended a school named for Arthur Balfour, who issued the 1917 British statement of support for a Jewish state—still a recent memory.
In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, the predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces. While serving at Haganah headquarters that year, he met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, and Levi Eshkol, who would be the third. Peres became head of naval services in 1948, the year of the war of independence, and the following year Ben-Gurion sent him to the United States to work on arms procurement for the nascent state. In 2014, he boasted to The Washington Post that he had worked with 10 presidents over the course of his career.
After Peres returned to Israel, Ben-Gurion in 1953 appointed him director general of the defense department—the same year that Moshe Dayan became chief of staff for the IDF. He served in that role under Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, who briefly replaced Ben-Gurion, and continued after Ben-Gurion’s return.
In 1956, Peres was important enough an aide that he traveled with Ben-Gurion to Sevres, France, where they met with French and British ministers and made a secret agreement to invade and occupy the area around the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of it. Through his relations with the French, Peres was also instrumental in establishing Israel’s nuclear program—one whose existence the country neither confirms nor denies.
Then Peres jumped to electoral politics, joining the Knesset in 1959. A decade later, Golda Meir appointed him to her cabinet, where he served alongside Yigal Allon, the former general who had briefly been interim prime minister. When Meir stepped down in 1974, Peres competed with Yitzhak Rabin to succeed her and lost. His consolation prizes were the ministry of defense and a long-running feud with Rabin. Shortly after Peres took the post, Israel launched the daring raid against Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe airport in Uganda. In 1977, Rabin was forced to step down and Peres was briefly prime minister, before being replaced by Menachem Begin. In 1983, Peres finally became prime minister in his own right, succeeding Yitzhak Shamir.
In 1992, Peres returned to the government as foreign minister under his old rival Rabin, and alongside Rabin and Yasser Arafat won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. When Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Peres once again became prime minister. Peres’s successor was Benjamin Netanyahu, which signaled a changing of the guard: Netanyahu was the first prime minister born after independence, and the first born within the state of Israel.
But Peres’ career wasn’t over. In 2001—following a failed run for president, a largely ceremonial post, in 2000—he became minister of foreign affairs once again, this time under Ariel Sharon, the general-turned-politician whom, of course, Peres had known for decades. Peres finally became president in 2007.
When Sharon finally succumbed in 2014 to a 2006 stroke that had incapacitated him, it fell to Peres to deliver a eulogy. Though Peres was five years older than Sharon, he had outlasted him, becoming the last giant standing. Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Dayan, Sharett, Meir, Allon, Begin, Shamir, and Rabin—they were all gone. And now so is Peres.