Whenever a politician passes away, the highlights and contradictions of his or her life surface immediately in a debate over the legacy that career has left. The state of Israel and the world will have a profound debate over the legacy of Shimon Peres, the last living link to the founding generation of their nation. The three-time prime minister passed away from a stroke late yesterday at the age of 93:
Former Israeli president and elder statesman Shimon Peres, a joint winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, died in hospital on Wednesday at 93, two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.
A campaigner for Middle East peace who played a seminal role in Israeli politics for nearly 70 years, Peres was mourned by world leaders and praised for his tireless engagement. …
Peres was part of almost every major political development in Israel since its founding in 1948. In a 70-year career, he served in a dozen cabinets and was twice prime minister.
He was first elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 1959 and barring a brief interlude in early 2006, held his seat for 48 years, until he became president in 2007.
World leaders praised Peres on his passing, including his longtime political opponent and friend Benjamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who called his death “a great loss to humanity and peace in the region.” Barack Obama issued a statement calling Peres a light that had been extinguished:
“A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever,” Mr. Obama said. “Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves — to the very end of our time on Earth and in the legacy that we leave to others.” …
The elder former President George Bush, who worked with Mr. Peres during his administration, praised an “innate humanity” that inspired many around the world. “By his unyielding determination and principle, Shimon Peres time and again helped guide his beloved country through the crucible of mortal challenge,” Mr. Bush said in a statement.
A former political opponent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a broadcast statement, “Along with all the citizens of Israel, the entire Jewish people and many others around the world, I bow my head in memory of our beloved Shimon Peres, who was treasured by the nation.”
Netanyahu offered a moving tribute this morning:
Mr. Netanyahu opened the special cabinet meeting, which was broadcast live on television, with the words, “This is the first day of the state of Israel without Shimon Peres.”
“I admired him. I loved him,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Peres’ history parallels that of Israel, and Peres was one of its pilots. In earlier years, he procured weapons for its independence, and set policy through several of its wars. Before the Oslo accord, which he and Yitzhak Rabin shepherded Israel into accepting — and which would ultimately provoke Rabin’s assassin — Peres also fostered the West Bank and Gaza settlements. He also fought a controversial war in Lebanon in 1996, which reminded many that while Peres wanted peace, he wanted a peace that would secure Israel rather than leave it vulnerable — and was prepared to fight for it, if necessary.
On two occasions, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel to cover the Tomorrow presidential conferences, an annual series staged by Peres until the last couple of years. Peres energetically took part in the events, offering the world a chance to see Israelis debating the direction and status of their nation. It was an eye-opening experience in several ways; for one thing, it reminded me that the center in Israel is, as in many other American parliamentary allies, somewhat to the left of ours. But it also showed how vigorous and vital Israeli democracy is, and how much that example is needed in that part of the world. On both occasions, the culmination of the event was a show of unity between Peres and Netanyahu that demonstrated their bonds together and the strength of their nation, which is both young and ancient.
The Israelis are best positioned to reach a conclusion on the legacy of Shimon Peres, of course. But it is clear that while Peres leaves behind a complicated and controversial career, his contributions will live far longer than his controversies. RIP.