Born in August 1923 (Vishneva, Poland)
Prime Minister of Israel
Shimon Peres committed himself to the survival of an independent Israel at a young age. Beginning in his early teens, Peres developed the skills he would later use as a politician. By his late twenties he had reached the upper levels of the Israeli government and had begun a mission to make his country strong and secure. Working in the Ministry of Defense, Peres increased Israel's weapons supplies, established Israel's own aircraft industry, and developed his country's nuclear weapons capabilities.
"With the religious you can hardly negotiate. They think they have supreme permission to kill people and go to war."
As a politician, Peres has remained at the top levels of Israeli government throughout decades of change and controversy. He was one of the few Israelis to become prime minister without being a decorated military leader. Though firm in his beliefs, Peres was able to function as a voice of compromise, uniting disparate political parties in times of controversy. His commitment to Israel's security was perhaps best illustrated by his efforts to effect peace in the Middle East. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his part in peace negotiations that were held between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and he worked to implement other peace agreements in the 2000s.
Dedicated to Israel at an early age
Shimon Peres was born in a small Jewish town of Vishneva, Poland (now Belarus), in August 1923, the first son of Yitzhak and Sarah Persky. Peres's father was a well-to-do merchant, but Poland's high taxes on Jews threatened his profits and forced him to move to Palestine in 1932. Within two years of arriving, he had created a thriving timber business in Tel Aviv, and sent money for his wife and two sons to join him.
In Palestine, Peres found life completely different. He recalled in his autobiography, Battling for Peace: A Memoir, that "we had not merely come to a new place but had become new and different people." For the first time, Peres felt free. He enjoyed his new life and soon was dedicated to ensuring Israel's survival. He became familiar with various youth groups, and joined a organization called Hanoar Haoved (Working Youth), which prepared youth for eventual membership in the Haganah, the underground Jewish army. He lived on their kibbutz, a collective agricultural settlement, and was especially attracted to the group's socialist ideology. (Socialism is the political system in which the government owns all property and industry and controls the distribution of goods and services.) He would eventually become a strong advocate and recruiter for the Hanoar Haoved.
At age fifteen, Peres moved to Ben-Shemen, a youth village/boarding school where children were prepared for life on the kibbutz. At Ben-Shemen, the students grew their food, ran the school, and earned their education. There he also began weapons training and worked as a night guard for the school, which experienced regular attacks by Arabs. During the day, Peres worked for a time growing vegetables, but soon became a dairyman. At the village he was so dedicated to his work that he began a lasting habit of sleeping only four or five hours every night, to give himself more time to complete his chores.
From an early age, Peres read every book he could get his hands on. He wrote poetry and articles for the student newspaper. He also became a powerful public speaker and a skillful debater. Upon his graduation from school, he moved to a kibbutz. He worked in the fields by day, but at night he worked as a spokesman for Hanoar Haovad. Shortly after World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) started, Peres was summoned away from his kibbutz work to recruit youth for Hanoar Haoved. He traveled the country bolstering the activities at existing Hanoar Haoved branches and setting up new ones. Peres said in his autobiography that he considered himself a follower of David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973; see entry), one of Israel's most respected statesmen. During his speaking engagements and while meeting with thousands of youth, Peres tried to impart the values he had learned from Ben-Gurion. These values were an "antipathy to every form of dictatorship and political coercion, including blind obedience," and the idea that "people must be free; not just physically, but spiritually as well." Peres remained a strong supporter of Ben-Gurion throughout his political career.
During World War II, Peres, like many others under the guidance of David Ben-Gurion, changed his name in support of Israel and the Hebrew language. He dropped his birth name of Persky and adopted the Hebraicized name Peres. He also joined the Mapai Party, a Jewish political party that supported Zionism and socialistic ideas that eventually became the Labor Party. On May 1, 1945, Peres married Sonia Gelman, whom he had met at the youth village as a teen. The couple would eventually have a daughter and two sons.
More brains than brawn
In 1946, at age twenty-three, Peres became a delegate to the Zionist Congress in Switzerland (Zionism was the international movement to create a homeland for Jews). At the time he was also writing a daily column for the Mapai Party's newspaper, Yediot Hadashot, and was an editor for the newspaper of the youth branch of the party. Although Peres had no military experience, he had proved his unwavering commitment to Israel and possessed a keen intellect. In 1947 he was appointed to the high command of the Haganah, where he was put in charge of obtaining weapons, a job in which he excelled. After Israel won its independence, Peres remained in the leadership of the independent Israeli army, now called the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Levi Eshkol (1895–1969), then director general of the Ministry of Defense, noticed Peres's abilities and when he needed an IDF representative to acquire arms in the United States, he chose Peres, even though Peres did not speak English and had little experience with Americans.
As deputy head of the Defense Ministry's mission in New York, Peres moved with his wife and daughter to the United States in 1949. There he quickly learned English and began recruiting people and obtaining equipment for the Israeli military. He established relations with wealthy Americans and Canadians who gave the Israelis military equipment and money. One of the most important relationships he built was with Al Schwimmer, the man whom Peres would persuade to move to Israel and establish Israel's aircraft industry. He also continued his own education, enrolling in courses at the New School for Social Research in New York City and taking courses in management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Upon his return to Israel in 1952, Peres became deputy director general of the Ministry of Defense. By 1953 he became director general, a position he held until 1959, the year he was elected to the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) and promoted to deputy minister of defense. In the late 1950s Peres organized the development of Israel's nuclear weapons program. Peres viewed nuclear weapons as essential for Israel because the country lacked natural resources and was surrounded by hostile nations. Peres worked to conceal his participation in the program, however, for he felt that many Israelis might be against the government development of weapons of mass destruction. Peres remained deputy minister of the Ministry of Defense until 1965, when he resigned in order to join Ben-Gurion in the formation of a new political party called Rafi, as a way of protesting the direction of the Labor Party. The Rafi Party failed to win enough seats in the Knesset to have any power in the government, so for the next fifteen years Peres, as secretary-general of Rafi, had little influence on government decision-making. Without power, his party suffered financially, and Peres used his own money to pay for its debts.
Saved by the Six-Day War
Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria battled with Israel during the 1960s and it was clear that larger conflict was fast approaching. Peres and other Rafi members called for a new coalition in the government, one of national unity. A united government, they reasoned, would make Israel stronger, better able to survive the war between Israel and certain Arab nations that was sure to happen. The new government, with Peres serving in the cabinet as Minister Without Portfolio, formed in 1967 just before Israel learned of an Arab plan that would attack Israeli targets. Israel attacked first, destroying the Egyptian air force and starting the Six-Day War. During and after this war, Peres remained in the most powerful circles of Israeli politics. He was instrumental in reuniting Rafi with the Labor Party, and worked in various cabinet-level positions throughout the 1970s. "Had it not been for the war," Peres recalled in his autobiography, "I daresay I would have been idle for a longer period."
Although he lost a bid for the post of prime minister to Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995; see entry) in a close election in 1974, Peres had secured a position for himself at the highest levels of government, serving as Minister of Defense from 1973 to 1977. As Minister of Defense, Peres helped to devise a plan to rescues Israeli hostages from terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda, and was pivotal in persuading Israeli cabinet members to support it. The crisis started when a plane originating in Jerusalem en route to Paris was hijacked on Sunday, June 27, 1976. The hijackers landed the plane in Entebbe and over the next few days, released all but the Jewish passengers and crew members. On July 3, Israeli soldiers stormed the plane, freeing the hostages and killing all the hijackers, who were Arabs and Germans. Praising the rescue operation, Major General Mordechai Gur (1930–1995) said that Peres was the "one man whose determination made it happen," according to Battling for Peace.
When the Labor Party lost the elections in 1977 to the conservative Likud Party, Peres began the task of rebuilding his party's power. His success in doing so was remembered as "his finest hour," according to his autobiography. In 1984 Peres once again worked to create a government of national unity, a coalition of the major political parties Labor and Likud. One political compromise the new government made was to rotate the prime minister's position from one party to the other. Peres served as prime minister for the first twenty-five months of the new government before handing over the reigns to Likud Party leader Yitzhak Shamir (1915–). As prime minister, Peres worked to pull Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon, where they were trying to overthrow the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which had formed its headquarters in Lebanon and had been launching attacks on Israeli settlements. Peres also made changes in the economy to increase jobs and lower inflation, and began peace negotiations with Jordan. Peres was particularly proud of Operation Moses, a secret airlift of Jews out of Ethiopia between late 1984 and early 1985.
Peres served in another unity government from 1988 to 1990, as minister of finance and vice premier. But by 1992 the Labor Party had returned to power. Yitzak Rabin was elected prime minister, and he appointed Peres as his foreign minister. In this capacity Peres worked to help negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. His efforts led to the Oslo Accords, which outlined a plan for Palestinian self-government. Peres, Rabin, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat (1929–2004; see entry) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their efforts.
Under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (1937–) the leader of the revolutionary government who ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, Ethiopian Jews felt threatened. The Ethiopian government forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew in the early 1980s, and Jews were often harassed. Thousands of Jews fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they gathered in camps to wait for transport to Israel. The Israel government secretly flew small groups from the camps into Israel. But by late 1984, so many refugees filled the camps that Israel appealed to the United States for help. Coordinating with an Israeli aid organization, the U.S. Air Force flew approximately 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel.
Peres and other dignitaries greeted some of the arrivals. Peres remembered the moment well, writing in his autobiography that "I will never forget the night they arrived. I stood there with other officials, speechless with emotion, as the doors of these huge planes opened and the elders of the community, gaunt but stately in their robes, came down the steps and kneeled to kiss the soil of the Holy Land. After them came mothers with wide-eyed, handsome children and then the rest of the families. Six planes landed, one after the other, and soon the terminal was full of these new arrivals. Yet not a sound of distress or complaint was to be heard. All of them, old and young alike, maintained this dignified, emotion-laden silence.... I felt as though history had awarded me a precious ringside seat at a unique presentation."
Although viewed as a success, Operation Moses was not a complete victory. It left an estimated 15,000 Jews in Ethiopia, mainly those too old, weak, or sick to make the journey to Sudan. Arab nations pressured Sudan to close its borders to Jews wishing to travel to Israel, leaving Ethiopian Jews with nowhere to run. Although a secret follow-up mission led by the United States rescued another 800 Ethiopian Jews, many remained under the oppressive dictatorship, a government ruled by a single person, of Mariam.
Peres assumed the responsibilities of prime minister when Rabin was assassinated in 1995. During his election campaign to keep his seat as prime minister in 1996, Peres's popularity lessened after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed twenty-four Israelis. He lost the election to Benjamin Netanyahu (1949–) of the Likud Party. He remained leader of the Labor Party until 1997, and served as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1996 to 1999. In 1996 Peres established the Peres Center for Peace, a nonpartisan, (nonsupportive of a particular political party), nongovernmental organization, in order to work for change in the Middle East. The center's motto is that "In order for sustainable peace to become an indisputable reality, each member of society must genuinely feel its positive impact." To this end, the center sponsored agricultural and economic projects to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian communities. In 1999 Peres was named honorary president of the Socialist International, an organization of social democratic, socialist, and labor parties from more than 150 countries working together to promote democracy, peace, and global economic cooperation, among other things. He worked as minister of regional cooperation from 1999 to 2001, when he became the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. He remained a prominent voice in peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As a leader in the Labor Party, Peres helped to form a national unity government with Likud leader Ariel Sharon (1928–; see entry) in 2004. At age eighty-one, Peres was appointed to the post of vice premier on January 11, 2005. Observers expected that Peres would likely oversee the disengagement of Israeli troops, especially from the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank, land that was taken over by Israel during the Six-Day War, scheduled for later that year.
For More Information
Golan, Matti. Shimon Peres: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Peres, Shimon. Battling for Peace: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995.
Wakin, Edward. Contemporary Leaders of the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 1996.
"Middle East: Israel's Shimon Peres Speaks to RFE/RL." Radio Free Europe.http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/01/4ce608a9-0553-4c10-9757-6695b60acbeb.html (accessed on January 26, 2005).
Peres Center for Peace.http://www.peres-center.org/ (accessed on January 12, 2005).
"Shimon Peres." Jewish Virtual Library.http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/peres.html (accessed on January 13, 2005).
Shimon Peres (born 1923) served as Israel's prime minister from 1984 through 1986 and again in 1995, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiations with the Palestinians, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
Shimon Peres was born to Yitzhak and Sara Persky in 1923 in Volozhin, Poland. In 1931 Yitzhak Persky emigrated to Palestine, with his family following two years later. In Palestine, the family changed their name legally to Peres. Peres began his studies at Tel-Aviv's Balfour School and continued at the Ben-Shemen agricultural school and youth village. Joining the clandestine Jewish self-defense organization the Haganah in 1941, Peres helped found Kibbutz Alumot in the lower Galilee where he met his future wife, Sonya Gelman. They married in 1945 and had three children.
Peres became actively involved in politics as a young member of Mapai, the dominant labor party. He served as secretary-general of Hanoar Haoved, the Histradrut labor federation's youth movement, and was a delegate in 1946 to the 22nd World Zionist Congress. He was also a position commander of Hagganah, and dedicated to fulfilling the organizations goals. It was during this period that Peres first came to the attention of David Ben-Gurion, leader of the campaign for Jewish statehood in Palestine. A strong relationship developed in which Peres earned the trust of the future first prime minister and, in return, showed steadfast loyalty in the many struggles of that period.
Under Ben-Gurion's patronage Peres came to assume increasingly more responsible positions after Israel became an independent nation in 1948. In the war for independence (1948-1949) he was assigned to the newly-formed ministry of defense and remained there until 1959. During that decade Peres served as chief of the naval department in 1948, was sent to the United States in 1950 on an arms-procurement mission (as well as to complete his education), and in the years 1952-1959 filled the top administrative post of director-general of the ministry.
Peres is remembered for having played a key role in Israeli national security. First, he was instrumental in establishing the indigenous Israeli defense industries. Second, at a time when Israel found itself isolated diplomatically in the face of mounting Arab threats and militarization, Peres encouraged collaboration with France. His secret contacts in Paris resulted in a flow of sophisticated weapons and military technologies from France, enabling Israel to conduct the successful Sinai campaign in 1956.
Peres simultaneously rose in the Mapai Party's ranks as one of the "young guard, " which included such other distinguished figures as Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, and Yigal Allon. But while respected for his managerial skills, Peres also earned the enmity of party stalwarts who regarded him as more of a technocrat. Peres was often allowed to exercise authority beyond his job description that earned him both the criticism and envy of other ministers. He earned a reputation as a shrewd effective negotiator, who often succeeded by bypassing diplomatic channels and establishing his own relationships. Nevertheless, he earned a high place on the party's list of candidates and was first elected to the Knesset (Israel's parliament) in 1959. He then served as deputy defense minister. Leaving Mapai, he helped form the breakaway Rafi Party and was returned to the Knesset in 1965. Three years later he helped negotiate a formal reconciliation with Mapai, resulting in the Labour/Alignment. Returned to the Knesset in 1969, Peres served as minister of immigrant absorption and minister-without-portfolio until August 1970, when he was given the post of minister for transport and communication. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War (1973) Peres briefly served as minister of information as part of a cabinet reshuffle.
When Golda Meir stepped aside as leader of the Alignment in 1974, a fiercely-contested succession struggle found Peres losing to Yitzhak Rabin by a narrow margin, 298 votes to 254. The Knesset endorsed the Rabin government in June, with Peres as minister of defense. Despite a strained personal and working relationship, Peres was actively involved in the separation of forces agreements with Syria and Egypt during the "shuttle diplomacy" of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He also administered the West Bank territories and restored the Israel Defense Forces to a peak of efficiency after the 1973 fighting.
The 1977 national elections witnessed a major reversal in Israeli politics, with the opposition Likud Party swept into office and Labour now out of power for the first time in 29 years. Peres, replacing Rabin as party chief, demonstrated admirable dedication in rebuilding the Alignment's political fortunes. A tireless campaigner, widely-read, and an experienced parliamentarian, Peres was a sharp critic of Begin government policies. He was especially critical of the aims and conduct of Operation "Peace for Galilee, " the invasion of Lebanon launched in June 1982.
In the 1984 elections the Israeli electorate failed to issue a clear mandate to either of the two major blocs: Likud or the Alignment. In the resultant deadlock it became necessary to seek some form of collaboration. These efforts led to formation of the National Unity Government. It was agreed that Peres would serve as prime minister for the first two years of the four-year term, after which he shifted position, serving as foreign minister and vice premier under Yitzhak Shamir.
During his term as prime minister Peres concentrated on a number of immediate priorities which centered on disengagement from Lebanon, checking the rampant inflation and restoring economic growth, streamlining the work of the prime minister's office and of the unwieldy 25-member cabinet, and deepening the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt while seeking resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict through his "Jordanian option." He also strengthened ties with the United States while improving the Israeli image and international position. During this time Peres became known for his efforts to work out a peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem on the West Bank.
In 1992 Peres lost party leadership to Rabin, but was appointed foreign minister in the new Labor cabinet. As foreign minister, he used his considerable negotiating skills to bring about the prospect of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Often criticized for his desire to grant the Palestinians more autonomy, Peres' maintained that negotiation was the only way to settle the centuries-long conflict. In 1994 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Peres, Rabin, and Yassar Arafat in recognition of their role in forging the Palestinian autonomy agreements.
On November 4, 1995, this promise of peace was dealt a devastating blow when Rabin was assassinated by a right wing Israeli student. Peres assumed the role of prime minister, vowing to continue the peace negotiations. In February 1996 he called for new elections, hoping that they would renew his mandate for peace. It appeared that he would win the election, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 24 Israelis. The mood of the public changed and Likud's candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, became the new prime minister.
In May 1997 Peres, afraid that he would lose his reelection bid to be Labor party leader, proposed creating the new post of Party President. He then served an ultimatum that if the party would not throw support for the post, he would not run for it. The party postponed any discussion and thereby informed Peres that his days as Labor party leader were numbered. He retired from his position.
Additional information on Peres can be found in Matti Golan, Shimon Peres: A Biography (1982) and in Peres' own book David's Sling (1982). See also Bernard Reich, Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict (1985). Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: A Biographical Dictionary (1990); the Electronic Telegraph (February 26, 1996, March 6, 1996, February 20, 1996, February 12, 1996, November 22, 1995, November 6, 1995). □