Shimon Peres

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.


Further Reading on Shimon Peres

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).