Israel's Last Founding Father
It was not long thereafter that a young extremist Israeli assassinated Rabin, and Peres once again became prime minister. Ever eager to be elected to the position, Peres called an election the following year, only to be defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Most men would have retired from public life at that point; Peres was seventy-three years old. Instead, for the next twenty years, whether in office as a minister in the Ehud Barak government from 1999–2001 and in the Sharon government from 2001–02 and 2005–06, or as president of Israel from 2007–14, or out of office in the intervening years, Shimon Peres became Israel’s leading spokesman both for peace with the Palestinians and for Israel’s ongoing development as a “start-up nation.” Even more important, as president he finally shed his reputation as a schemer and instead became a beloved national treasure. The war hawk had turned peacemaker; the manipulator had risen above politics.
It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rants against the Oslo Accord contributed to his defeat of Peres in the 1996 election, but who became close with the older man during Peres’s presidency, whose eulogy captured some of the essence of Israel’s last surviving founding father:
“He soared on the wings of vision but he knew that the runway passes through the rocky field of politics. He was able to do all that—to be pummeled, to fall and get back on his feet time after time—thanks to his passion for activism and ideals.”
But there was even more to Peres than that: in his old age, he was reported to have become more religious, reverting back to his early youth and his love for his grandfather, the rabbi. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Many people come to terms with their maker in their sunset years. Yet there was something more to it: Peres, looking back on all he had done, truly came to believe that the promises Biblical prophets had made to the Jews more than two millennia previously were finally coming to fruition. The boy from the Polish shtetl had come a long way, and his Biblical dream had come true.
Dov S. Zakheim was under secretary of defense (2001–4) and deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.