JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president and prime minister, whose life story mirrored that of the Jewish state and who was celebrated around the world as a Nobel prize-winning visionary who pushed his country toward peace, died early Wednesday, a person close to him confirmed. Peres was 93.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Peres’ health with the media. The family said it would issue a formal announcement shortly.
Peres’ condition worsened following a major stroke two weeks ago that led to bleeding in his brain. He was sedated and on a respirator during most of his hospitalization.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement mourning the passing of Peres. He said he will convene his Cabinet for a special session later in the day.
As word of Peres’ death spread, reaction started pouring in from Israel and around the globe.
President Barack Obama eulogized him as a man who represented “the essence of Israel itself.”
“There are few people who we share this 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. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” he said. “A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever.”
Former President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton say they have “lost a true and treasured friend” with the death of Shimon Peres.
The Clintons say Israel has lost a leader “who championed its security, prosperity and limitless possibilities from its birth to his last day on earth.” They called him “a genius with a big heart who used his gifts to imagine a future of reconciliation, not conflict.”
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also issued statements of mourning.
AN ADMIRED LEADER
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the elder statesman of Israeli politics, one of the country’s most admired leaders and the last surviving link to its founding fathers.
In an unprecedented seven-decade political career, Peres filled nearly every position in Israeli public life and was credited with leading the country through some of its most defining moments, from creating its nuclear arsenal in the 1950s, to disentangling its troops from Lebanon and rescuing its economy from triple-digit inflation in the 1980s, to guiding a skeptical nation into peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s.
A protege of Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, he led the Defense Ministry in his 20s and spearheaded the development of Israel’s nuclear program. He was first elected to parliament in 1959 and later held every major Cabinet post — including defense, finance and foreign affairs — and served three brief stints as prime minister. His key role in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and revered status as Israel’s then most recognizable figure abroad.
And yet, for much of his political career he could not parlay his international prestige into success in Israeli politics, where he was branded by many as both a utopian dreamer and political schemer. His well-tailored, necktied appearance and swept-back gray hair seemed to separate him from his more informal countrymen. He suffered a string of electoral defeats: competing in five general elections seeking the prime minister’s spot, he lost four and tied one.
He finally secured the public adoration that had long eluded him when he has chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as Israel’s ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.
Peres was celebrated by doves and vilified by hawks for advocating far-reaching Israeli compromises for peace even before he negotiated the first interim accord with the Palestinians in 1993 that set into motion a partition plan that gave them limited self-rule. That was followed by a peace accord with neighboring Jordan. But after a fateful six-month period in 1995-96 that included Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres’ own election loss to the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, the prospects for peace began to evaporate.
Relegated to the political wilderness, he created his non-governmental Peres Center for Peace that raised funds for cooperation and development projects involving Israel, the Palestinians and Arab nations. He returned to it at age 91 when he completed his term as president.
BORN IN POLAND, MOVED TO PALESTINE
Shimon Perski was born on Aug. 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his immediate family. Her grandfather and other relatives stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide to Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a man Peres once called “the greatest Jew of our time.”
At 29, he was the youngest person to serve as director of Israel’s Defense Ministry, and is credited with arming Israel’s military almost from scratch. Yet throughout his political career, he suffered from the fact that he never wore an army uniform or fought in a war.
Of his 10 books, several amplified his vision of a “new Middle East” where there was peaceful economic and cultural cooperation among all the nations of the region.
Despite continued waves of violence that pushed the Israeli political map to the right, the concept of a Palestinian state next to Israel became mainstream Israeli policy many years after Peres advocated it.
Shunted aside during the 1999 election campaign, won by party colleague Ehud Barak, Peres rejected advice to retire, assuming the newly created and loosely defined Cabinet post of Minister for Regional Cooperation.
In 2000, Peres absorbed another resounding political slap, losing an election in the parliament for the largely ceremonial post of president to Likud Party backbencher Moshe Katsav, who was later convicted and imprisoned for rape.
Even so, Peres refused to quit. In 2001, at age 77, he took the post of foreign minister in the government of national unity set up by Ariel Sharon, serving for 20 months before Labor withdrew from the coalition.
Then he followed Sharon into a new party, Kadima, serving as vice-premier under Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert, before assuming the presidency.
“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. For the gift of his friendship and the example of his leadership, todah rabah, Shimon.”? — President Barack Obama
QUOTES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
“With the passing of Shimon Peres, Israel has lost a leader who championed its security, prosperity, and limitless possibilities from its birth to his last day on earth. The Middle East has lost a fervent advocate for peace and reconciliation and for a future where all the children of Abraham build a better tomorrow together. And Hillary and I have lost a true and treasured friend.
“I’ll never forget how happy he was 23 years ago when he signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, heralding a more hopeful era in Israeli-Palestinian relations. He 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.” — Former President Bill Clinton
“Barbara and I join Shimon Peres’ countless admirers around the world in saluting his singular life of service — to the universal cause of freedom, to the timeless cause of Israel, to the noblest cause of peace. By his unyielding determination and principle, Shimon Peres time and again helped guide his beloved country through the crucible of mortal challenge. But it was by his innate humanity, his decency, that Shimon inspired the world over and helped pave a path to peace broad enough that future generations will walk it one day, side-by side.” — Former President George H. W. Bush
“Laura and I join the people of Israel and those around the world in mourning the death of Shimon Peres. As a young man, he worked for his country’s independence. 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. The Bush family will miss Shimon Peres and his grace, dignity, and optimism.” — Former President George W. Bush
“On behalf of the entire New York Jewish community, we deeply mourn the passing of Shimon Peres, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of our time. President Peres was one of the extraordinary visionaries of our age, a towering Zionist hero of deep courage who devoted his life to serving and defending Israel and the Jewish people.” — Eric S. Goldstein, CEO, UJA-Federation of New York.
“The world has lost a true legend and statesman. Shimon Peres was a gift to the country he helped establish and lead, and a persistent voice for the cause of peace. President Peres’ countless contributions to the world earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. While we join the State of Israel and people around the globe in mourning his death, we also give thanks for his incredible life.” — U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan
“Shimon Peres’ story was the story of modern Israel — a saga of daring, dynamism and wisdom. With all of his heart, this farmer, fighter, author, Nobel Peace Prize winner, prime minister and president worked to guide his nation into a secure and confident future. I valued his friendship. He was an intellectual resource who personified the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.” — House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi