TEL AVIV (Christian Examiner) – Shimon Peres, a staple of Israeli politics for nearly 70 years, died in Tel Aviv Wednesday.
The former president and prime minister, 93, was recovering from the stroke suffered two weeks before and was said to be improving. However, on Tuesday his condition suddenly worsened.
Born in Poland, Peres was the elder statesman of Israel. He was part of a group of core leaders in the country who helped found the nation in 1948 and he held virtually every position in government, including multiple cabinet posts. He is most well-known, however, for his tenure as prime minister and for his signature to the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In 1994, Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat and former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Rabin was assassinated a year later by a Jewish nationalist opposed to the peace accords.
The accords created a temporary lull in conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but had no lasting effect as Arafat slipped back into his persona as a staunch opponent of Israel, launching several intifadas or "uprisings" afterwards.
At the same time Peres was an advocate for peace, he was also a realist. He was experienced in dealing with hijackers, was a "hawk" when necessary, and was also widely regarded as having secured Israel's nuclear arsenal while minister of defense. Israel still refuses to acknowledge its arsenal or disclose how many warheads it has.
Before his cabinet meeting Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Peres left a "long trail of unique achievements."
"Shimon Peres lived a life rich in deeds, which symbolize the history of a revived Israel – the life of an ancient people that marches, revived, on its land, the power of our people to defend itself, and is building up its homeland with sweat and courage," Netanyahu said.
Ironically, Peres was defense minister while Netanyahu's brother, Yoni, was commander of an elite special operations and hostage rescue unit. Peres dispatched the unit to Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue Israeli hostages there. Yoni Netanyahu was the only soldier killed in the 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport. Still, the current prime minister called the raid "one of the summits of his [Peres's] life."
"Alongside all of his work on behalf of the security of Israel, Shimon Peres never stopped striving for peace and believing in peace. His hand was always extended toward historic reconciliation with our neighbors. Even if this reconciliation tarried, he taught us not to give in to despair but to cling to the hope and to continue working," Netanyahu said.
President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House that Peres was one of few people in the world who had changed the course of human history and forced those seeking peace to "expand our moral imagination and ... expect more of ourselves."
Obama presented Peres with the U.S. government's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2012.
"He was guided by a vision of the human dignity and progress that he knew people of goodwill could advance together. He brought young people from around the world together because he knew they could carry us closer to our ideals of justice and equality," Obama said.
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"As Americans, we are in his debt because, having worked with every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, no one did more over so many years as Shimon Peres to build the alliance between our two countries – an unbreakable alliance that today is closer and stronger than it has ever been," Obama said.
"A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever. 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."
Former President Bill Clinton also issued a statement about Peres, calling him a champion of Israel's security, prosperity and "limitless possibilities from its birth to his last day on earth." The Oslo Accords were signed while Clinton was in office 23 years ago.
"[Peres] was a genius with a big heart who used his gifts to imagine a future of reconciliation not conflict, economic and social empowerment not anger and frustration, and a nation, a region, and a world enhanced by caring and sharing, not torn asunder by the illusions of permanent dominance and perfect truth. His critics called him a dreamer. That he was – a lucid, eloquent dreamer until the very end. Thank goodness. Let those of us who loved him and love his nation keep his dream alive," Clinton said.
Former President George W. Bush said in a short statement that he and his wife, Laura, joined the world in mourning the leader's passing. He said Peres worked as a young man for his country's independence, but "for the rest of his life he led it with a deep and abiding concern for his people and a commitment to freedom and peace."
He said the Bush family will miss Peres's "grace, dignity, and optimism."
Somewhat surprisingly, even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had kind words for the family of Shimon Peres. Abbas – who succeeded Yasser Arafat – reportedly sent a condolence letter to Peres's family.
Abbas's top diplomatic adviser, Majdi al-Khalidi, said in a statement that Peres was a "man of peace" who had engaged the Palestinians and sought to end violence in the region through prayer and interfaith dialogue.
"His passing is certainly a great loss for humanity and the region," Khalidi told the Jerusalem Post.
Not all sides in the Palestinian camp agreed, however. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said from his office in Gaza that Peres was "the last of the generation of co-founders of the Israeli occupation and, therefore, his death represents the end of an era in the history of occupation and the beginning of a new era of weakness and retreat for the Zionist enemy."
"We assure that the Palestinian people are happy at the departure of this criminal who had been involved in many crimes and in the bloodshed of the Palestinian people," Zuhri said.
The semi-official Iranian news agency FARS also minced no words when speaking of Peres.
"His career was also marked by an incessant push to expand the regime's illegal settlements, which have been mushrooming across the occupied Palestinian territories," the FARS report claimed.
The paper also blamed him for the deaths of 3,700 Palestinians in "two full-scale wars" launched the "Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip."