Written By Ed Stannard for the Register Citizen POSTED:
JERUSALEM >> Israel and the world on Wednesday mourned the death of Shimon Peres, a former president and prime minister whose life story mirrored that of the Jewish state, as the government began preparations for a funeral that is expected to bring together an array of world leaders and international dignitaries.
Peres, celebrated around the world as a Nobel Prize-winning visionary who pushed his country toward peace during a remarkable seven-decade career, died early Wednesday from complications from a stroke. He was 93.
News of Peres’ death was met with an outpouring of tributes from around the world.
“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,” said President Barack Obama.
He was also remembered by the New Haven-area Jewish community.
Judy Diamondstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, said Peres was one of her heroes “because he was a true statesman who was an optimist who always believed in peace, that peace was possible, even when times were most dire.”
Diamondstein said she met Peres at the Israeli presidential election during a leadership conference in 2010. “I had the chance to meet him and be really up close and personal and he was I guess what you’d call a mensch,” who related to everyone in the room.
“He was such a kind soul,” Diamondstein said. “I’m incredibly sad today.” She said he should inspire people to “work for peace.”
She acknowledged that her personal knowledge did not take into account Peres’ complex legacy, which included overseeing Israel’s nuclear program and ordering an aerial strike on Lebanon. “The Shimon Peres that I knew and appreciated and valued was the man he was later in life,” she said.
Anat Baletzki, an Israeli Jew and a professor of philosophy and human rights at Quinnipiac University, had a different view. A member of the peace movement, she said, “I happen to be one of the people who do not think that he was a great peacemaker.” For the human rights community, “he represents the negative aspects of Israeli history,” she said.
“One of the amazing things about him is how he presented to the world a persona ... as seeking peace,” while being a prime force behind the settlements in the occupied territories.
“I’m sure he wanted peace,” she said, but his actions did not help the process, including starting Israel’s nuclear program, which is widely suspected of having created nuclear bombs. He also supported the blockade of the Gaza Strip, she said.
“He was a tragic figure, Baletzki said.
Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel said Peres was “kind of [a] philosopher. He was very well spoken but he didn’t serve in the army, so he was always suspect in that sense.”
“His belief was that Dimona [Israel’s nuclear installation] would assure peace in the Middle East.”
But he also was responsible for the 1993 Oslo accords, which ultimately failed but for which he won the Nobel Prize.
Criticized for negotiating with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, “He was the one who said you make peace with your enemies, not your friends,” Brockman said. “The tragedy of [Oslo] was it ended within five years.” However, Peres “never gave in to cynicism,” he said.
Peres spoke at Yale University at least three times calling for peace in the Middle East and in 2006 was met by protesters who called him “a phony man of peace.”
Rabbi Rona Shapiro of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge called Peres “a lawyer for peace who devoted his whole life to his service to his country and his vision and his optimism are missing in the world right now and he’ll be missed.”
Rabbi Mendy Hecht of Congregation Beth Israel in New Haven said Peres “really gave his whole life” to Israel and peace. “He never retired, which is amazing. He didn’t open a presidential library and make speeches. To me he represents just taking an infantile dream and making it what it is today.”
Obama was among a list of leaders tentatively expected at Peres’ funeral in Jerusalem on Friday. After earlier saying that Obama and Hillary Clinton would be attending, spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said there was “no definite answer.” Earlier, the ministry also backtracked on a claim that the pope would be coming.
Despite the confusion, a high-powered group of world leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, was expected for what would be the largest such gathering in Israel since the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995.
Officials said Peres’ body would lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday to allow the public to pay final respects. His funeral will take place at Mount Herzl, the country’s national cemetery in Jerusalem. Yona Bartal, a former personal aide to Peres, said the arrangements were in line with his wishes.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., issued a statement saying, “In an increasingly dangerous world, Shimon Peres was a champion for peace. He dedicated his life in service to his country — holding positions in Israel’s highest ranks for decades — and showed a commitment to public service and devotion to his country that will endure as an example to us all. His death is a tremendous loss to not only the people of Israel, but for the entire international community.”
Peres’ son, Chemi, confirmed his death Wednesday morning to reporters gathered at the hospital where Peres had been treated since suffering a stroke on Sept. 13.
“Our father’s legacy has always been to look to tomorrow,” he said. “We were privileged to be part of his private family, but today we sense that the entire nation of Israel and the global community share this great loss. We share this pain together.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Cabinet for a special meeting, where he praised Peres despite their deep ideological differences. “Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” he said. “As Israel’s president, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved him for it.”
Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said they “lost a true and treasured friend.” Clinton was president when Peres helped negotiate the historic interim peace agreement with the Palestinians in 1993.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also issued statements of mourning.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement expressing his “sorrow and sadness” over Peres’ death
He called Peres “a partner in making the peace of the brave” with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Rabin. All three men shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Oslo interim peace accord, which Abbas helped negotiate.
“He exerted persistent efforts to reach a just peace from the Oslo agreement until the final moments of his life,” Abbas said.
While Western leaders lionized Peres, he had a mixed legacy with the Palestinians, who appreciated his stated commitment to peace but held him responsible for a deadly artillery strike that killed dozens of civilians in Lebanon while he was prime minister in 1996. Peres, like other Israeli leaders, also allowed settlement construction to take place during his years in leadership positions.
In the Gaza Strip, the ruling Hamas militant group called Peres “the last remaining Israeli official who founded the occupation.”
“His death is the end of a phase in the history of this occupation and the beginning of a new phase of weakness.” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group.
There was little official reaction from elsewhere in the Arab world.
At home, Peres was 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 what is believed to be a 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.
Peres was born Shimon Perski on Aug. 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his immediate family. His other relatives stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a man Peres once called “the greatest Jew of our time.”
As protege of Ben-Gurion, Peres 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.
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. 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 was 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 1993 accord with the Palestinians 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 Rabin’s assassination, a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres’ own election loss to the more conservative 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.
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.