In the years after he left the U.S. diplomatic service, Daniel Kurtzer would often spend time with Shimon Peres during his return visits to Israel.
Kurtzer, who had served as ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, said that whenever he went into Mr. Peres’ office in a pessimistic mood because of recent developments in the Middle East peace process he would always leave more optimistic.
Mr. Peres, Kurtzer said, would point to some sign of light in what appeared to be total darkness and boost his spirits. Mr. Peres’ message: Never stop looking for a way to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together. “You have to keep trying,” he often said.
“There were many occasions like that,” Kurtzer said. “He kept pumping me up.”
Kurtzer, now a professor of Mideast policy at Princeton University, said that attitude typified the career and outlook of Mr. Peres, who died at 93 on Sept. 27 at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.
During nearly 70 years of public life, Mr. Peres served as the country’s president, prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister. He was also a longtime Knesset member, making his legacy as the instigator of the behind-the-scenes negotiating process that culminated in the historic 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
A native of Poland, Mr. Peres quickly became a leader in his adopted homeland, spending his last years as Israel’s elder statesman.
Mr. Peres was, Kurtzer said, possibly “the most influential person” in Israel’s years of statehood.
“He was a true-blue Zionist.”
“He made a transition in his views. This was a man with vision, a man who did stuff. He was always forward looking,” Kurtzer told The Jewish Week. “He always believed that you go out and do things. You don’t follow. He was always a leader. He didn’t often have a lot of followers.”
A wide variety of people praised Mr. Peres’ legacy in the days after his death.
“Todah rabah [thank you very much], Shimon,” President Obama said.
“There are few people who we share the world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves,” Obama said in a prepared statement. “My friend Shimon was one of those people.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once a bitter political rival of Mr. Peres, called him “one of Israel’s great leaders … He worked until his last days toward reconciliation with our neighbors for a better future for our children.”
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, tweeted in Arabic that “Shimon Peres’ 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 Peres’ family, in which he said that Peres had been partner to the “peace of the brave” and that he had “striven for peace until the day he died.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary and former President Bill Clinton said in a joint statement that Mr. Peres’ “critics called him a dreamer.” And they agreed. “That he was — a lucid, eloquent dreamer until the very end. Thank goodness.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “We have truly lost a giant. He was a tough-minded lover of peace who understood that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and must have the deterrence it needs, but that in the end, the best deterrence is hope for a better tomorrow.”
Mr. Peres at times during his career was compared to the late Abba Eban, the foreign minister and ambassador to both the U.S. and United Nations, who was a popular figure in the English-speaking diaspora but wielded less political influence back in Israel.
“Abba Eban was not influential at all in Israeli politics, while Peres was part of the Israeli security establishment,” said Efraim Inbar, professor in political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “He was a good politician — he knew the ropes. He knew how the system works.”
Mr. Peres’ influence increased in many circles after his apparent political change of heart, and especially after he assumed the largely figurehead presidency in 2007 and felt less constrained to reflect a political party line. “He was free to speak his mind,” said Yossi Beilin, a longtime Peres aide.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Peres’ persona had shifted from hawk to dove. With a growing demographic threat posed by Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza (before Israeli relinquished Gaza in 2005), and a mounting military threat posed by radical Muslims on Israel’s borders, Mr. Peres “made a transition in his views,” sensing the inevitability of reaching a political accommodation with the Palestinians, Kurtzer said. “He saw it before most people.”
Mr. Peres gained the reputation of being a political leader who mastered the details of every position he held – such as military arms while serving in Israel’s defense establishment, or economics while serving as finance minister. Later, in his senior years, he pushed Israel’s embrace of the emerging high-tech, Internet-based society.
As president, Mr. Peres became a consensus figure, Kurtzer said. “He spoke to all Israelis.”
Beilin said he went to Mr. Peres’ office the morning after Mr. Peres’ electoral defeat to Netanyahu in 1996.
“I did not know what to say,” Beilin said — he expected to find Mr. Peres in a distant, morose mood.
When Beilin entered his boss’ office, Mr. Peres was on the phone with his wife, Sonia. The prime minister was discussing that day’s lunch, Beilin said. “Chicken is fine,” he heard Mr. Peres say.
Mr. Peres exhibited no sign that he had lost an election a few hours before, and had again experienced political rejection at the hands of the Israeli public, Beilin said. In the subsequent two decades, Mr. Peres remained active in politics, advocating his vision of a New Middle East and burnishing his reputation.
“For him, it was another day,” Belin said. An election loss “was not the end of the world. He never entered into depression. He never gave up.”