The world mourns Shimon Peres as Israel considers his legacy

The world mourns Shimon Peres as Israel considers his legacy

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JERUSALEM — Israelis awoke Wednesday to news that Shimon Peres, one of the founders of the state of Israel, had died of a massive stroke. Immediately — on TV shows and coffee shops — they began to debate his long and complex legacy even as an outpouring of tributes poured in from abroad.

The 93-year-old former prime minister, Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner died at a Tel Aviv hospital surrounded by his family before dawn on Wednesday.

Peres arrived in British Palestine as a young boy from a town in what is now Belarus. He began a security hawk, who helped turn Israel into a nuclear power, only to become the ultimate dove, who until the very end was pushing for peace with the Palestinians.

At the Sheba Medical Center, his son Chemi Peres thanked those around the world who offered support and prayers since Peres suffered a massive stroke earlier this month. Until Tuesday, doctors had expressed cautious optimism that Peres might recover, but his condition deteriorated quickly in the last 24 hours.

“The loss we feel today belongs to all of Israel, we all share this pain,” Chemi Peres said.

Rafi Walden, Peres’s personal physician and son-in-law, said Peres was in robust health until being felled by the stroke Sept. 13. The family said that Peres wanted any useful organs donated for transplant. His corneas were removed.

Walden said that President Obama called the family and spoke with Peres’s daughter to express his condolences

Israel officials scrambled to finalize funeral arrangements. A former top aide to Peres said it was likely his body will lie in state at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on Thursday, when the public will be allowed to pay their respects. Then on Friday his remains will be moved by procession to nearby Mount Herzl for burial.

The list of attendees was being confirmed.

Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, directed that all of Israel’s school children dedicate a portion of the day on Thursday to the study of the life of Peres.

Social media sites were filled with Peres quotes on Wednesday.

“Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently,” Peres said in 2005.

“My greatest mistake is that my dreams were too small,” Peres concluded during a TED talk in Tel Aviv in 2015.

Abroad, Peres is best known as Israel’s elder statesman, the grandfatherly man who liked poetry and a glass of wine — a leader hailed for his optimism, vigor and pursuit of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who themselves seek an end to the almost 50-year military occupation and a sovereign state.

At home, Peres was most beloved in his later years, especially during his term as Israeli president, a largely ceremonial post. But his six-decade legacy is complex in Israel. Though he served as prime minister, he was also rejected by voters in other races.

Many Israelis have turned away from Peres’s signal achievement, the hammering out of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the beginning of what has become a faltering peace process with the Palestinians.

Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat for the peace accord.

Peres’s tenure in power lasted through 10 U.S. presidents. He served in top government posts, including two terms as prime minister. He was also foreign minister, information minister, finance minister and defense minister.

In an unusually personal statement, Obama said that no Israeli did more over so many years as Peres to build the alliance with United States.

“I will always be grateful that I was able to call Shimon my friend,” Obama said.

He praised the Israeli leader’s “unshakable moral foundation and unflagging optimism.”

“Perhaps because he had seen Israel surmount overwhelming odds, Shimon never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors — not even after the heartbreak of the night in Tel Aviv that took Yitzhak Rabin,” Obama said.

Rabin, then prime minister, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995 as he worked to build a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Peres succeeded Rabin as prime minister, one of three times he held the post.

“I’ll never forget how happy he was 23 years ago when he signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, heralding a more hopeful era in Israeli-Palestinian relations,” former President Bill Clinton said in a statement.

“His critics called him a dreamer. That he was — a lucid, eloquent dreamer until the very end,” said Clinton, who planned to attend the funeral.

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, called Peres “someone I loved deeply.”

“His intellect, his way with words that was eloquent beyond description, his command of the world and how it was changing were extraordinary,” Blair said.

Yoram Dori, a close friend and former advisor to Peres, said that what drove the Israeli leader, even after numerous setbacks, was the fact that he saw his fellow Israelis as family.

“He more than once told me, especially in times of frustration, that the citizens of the State of Israel and the Jewish people were his family. He would say to me, ‘Yoram, do you ever quit your family? Your concern until your last breath is your family and you will do everything you can to help your family, and my family is the State of Israel,'” said Dori.

Dori, who began working with Peres in the 1990s, said the two had been working on a book about the leader’s most significant decisions. He said Peres was certain that his building of Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel’s southern desert was his greatest achievement — one that at the time most of the government and scientists opposed.

It was his success with Dimona that led to his rapid rise in the establishment and eventually the Oslo accords.

Dori also recalled the time Peres met with Obama while he was still a senator. “Peres told him that the future is not for young people. They have to deal with day-to-day life. But for me, as an elder statesman I have the time to deal with the future,” his friend said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a moment of silence during meetings on Wednesday.

“I bow my head in memory of the beloved Peres, someone revered by the entire people,” said Netanyahu, who as a leader of the Likud party was often in the past a political rival to Peres and his Labor party.

Netanyahu noted that Peres was dedicated to Israel’s security. “He strengthened Israel in many ways, some of which are still secret,” the prime minister said.

Former Israeli parliamentarian Einat Wilf, who served as a foreign policy advisor to Peres, said legends about Peres were true.

“When I just started working for him I was very new and wanted to prove myself by arriving early before him and staying late after him, but after three days I realized that I would end up being hospitalized if I continued to do that. He had a schedule that even young people could not keep pace with,” said Wilf.

Wilf said that as a politician he was not always popular in Israel, especially because he was so opinionated. She said that he kept his Polish accent until his last day and was often seen as an outsider in Israel. He also never served as a soldier during Israel’s 1948 war for independence. Instead, he focused on procuring weapons for the fighting forces. It was something that was often frowned upon during his political career, especially in a culture that worships winning generals and daring commanders.

Praise for Peres flowed from Jewish leaders in the United States, who hailed him as a visionary, a soldier for Israel during its fight for independence and a voice for peace in his later years.

Peres remained a controversial figure for his role in fostering Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and his leadership during a deadly attack on a United Nations base in southern Lebanon in 1996.

On social media, Palestinian supporters warned that glowing obituaries were a whitewash. They called Peres “a war criminal” and an Israeli “with blood on his hands.”

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former spokesperson for the PLO, tweeted, “For Peres, ‘peace’ meant bombing civilians, stealing land, ethnic cleansing and building settlements.”

Yet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tweeted in Arabic: “Shimon Peres’s death is a heavy loss for all humanity and for peace in the region.”

The official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that Abbas had sent a condolence letter to the Peres family.

In a speech Peres gave in 2014 upon accepting the Congressional Gold Medal, Peres called peace with the Palestinians “the most possible impossibility.”

Netanyahu in his last reelection bid famously vowed there would be no Palestinian state created on his watch. He later walked back his promise and said instead that the time wasn’t right. Netanyahu frequently disparages Abbas and charges that he incites violence and shirks negotiations.

But Peres disagreed, calling Abbas “clearly a partner for peace.”

He added, “The Arabs are not Israel’s enemies. The terrorists are the enemies of both of us.”

william.booth@washpost.com

ruth.eglash@washpost.com

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This article was written by William Booth and Ruth Eglash from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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