Shimon Peres, Former Israeli Leader and Nobel Winner, Dies at 93

Shimon Peres  Reuters

Shimon Peres, the Israeli statesman who earned a Nobel Prize for his tireless efforts to forge peace with Palestinians, died on Tuesday. He was 93.

Over a seven-decade career, Mr. Peres served as prime minister, president and Labor Party chief. He was the last surviving member of a group of leaders who witnessed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Ariel Sharon, among others.

At the height of his career, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that became known as the Oslo Accords. He shared it with Yitzhak Rabin, a rival Labor leader, and Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestine Liberation Organization chief.

The accords outlined steps toward a two-state solution to the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a vision that still hasn't been realized.

"We have to make peace with the Palestinians," Mr. Peres said in a video interview posted in 2015 by the PeresCenter for Peace, a nonprofit organization he set up in 1996. "There's no way to achieve it in my opinion without a two-state solution."

In 2012, President Barack Obama presented Mr. Peres, then 88 years old and Israel's president, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom , the highest civilian award in the U.S. Mr. Obama said the Israeli leader, when recently asked what he wanted his legacy to be, quipped: "Well, it's too early for me to think about it."

Known as the father of Israel's aerospace and nuclear programs, Mr. Peres was first elected to the Knesset, or parliament, in 1959. He was the country's longest-standing parliamentarian and served in 12 governments. At age 83, he was chosen to serve a seven-year term as president, a largely ceremonial post.

Initially, Mr. Peres supported Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza -- land captured during the 1967 Middle East war. But he focused his later years on promoting a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians based on separate states.

Mr. Peres became acting prime minister in 1977 when Mr. Rabin was forced to step down over a scandal about his wife holding a bank account overseas, which was illegal at the time in Israel.

As acting prime minister, Mr. Peres lost national elections later that year, the first time the Labor Party was defeated since the founding of the state under Mr. Ben-Gurion. The election marked the beginning of a period of political dominance for the winners, the Likud party, led today by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After the Labor Party returned to power in 1992, Mr. Peres was appointed foreign minister under the premiership of Mr. Rabin, with whom he had a strained relationship. The two of them conducted negotiations with the PLO, headed at the time by Mr. Arafat. Those contacts led to the signing in 1993 of the first Oslo Accord.

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1994, Mr. Peres said he wished for "a Middle East that is not a killing field but a field of creativity and growth."

A year later, Mr. Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Messrs. Peres and Rabin hugged each other at a rally for peace in Tel Aviv, moments before Mr. Rabin was shot dead, recalled Yossi Beilin, a longtime ally of Mr.Peres and former deputy foreign minister.

"They hated and respected each other right until the last moments of Rabin," said Mr. Beilin.

Mr. Peres's death came at a low point for efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2014. Palestinian leaders now refuse to enter negotiations unless Mr. Netanyahu freezes construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has since fought three wars with the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 that Palestinians no longer considered themselves bound by the Oslo Accords because of what he said was Israel's failure to implement them.

Born in modern-day Belarus to a timber merchant and a librarian, Mr. Peres emigrated with his family in 1934 to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, encompassing much of the territory that is now Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. His family changed its name from Perski to the Hebrew style of Peres, and young Shimon grew up in Tel Aviv.

In 1943, he was elected secretary of the Labor-Zionist youth movement, a grass-roots socialist organization that supported the establishment of a Jewish state. He also became involved in the Haganah, the forerunner to the Israeli military, and in 1953 at the age of 29, was appointed as director-general of the defense ministry by Mr. Ben-Gurion.

A succession of posts at the ministry marked Mr. Peres as a man dedicated to Israel's security. During his tenure there, Israel invested in developing a secret nuclear weapons program, which critics said contributed to regional instability, a notion that Mr. Peres bristled at in later life.

"Pakistan did it before us, and India," he told The Wall Street Journal in 2007. Israel officially neither confirms nor denies it has nuclear weapons.

The development of nuclear capabilities "helped us achieve peace with Egypt," he added, referring to the peace agreement signed in 1979 after the two countries had fought three wars.

In the wake of Mr. Rabin's assassination, Mr. Peres ran for prime minister in 1996 against Mr. Netanyahu. Initially commanding a wide lead in the polls, he and his party soon lost their footing. Hamas launched a string of suicide bomb attacks and voters responded to Mr. Netanyahu's tough talk on security. Mr. Peres lost the race by a small margin.

Mr. Beilin said one of his most-enduring memories of Mr. Peres was when he entered his office on the morning after the election. Mr. Peres had been up all night and was talking to his wife Sonia, who asked him if he was happy with chicken for lunch.

"Wonderful," Mr. Beilin remembers Mr. Peres saying.

"The whole world was shocked by the election but here he was telling Sonia chicken was OK," Mr. Beilin said. "He went through low moments. But optimism never left him."

Mr. Peres' election losses lent him an image as a weak campaigner. His involvement in initially pushing settlements in the West Bank and in Israel's arms buildup also tarnished his image among some liberal-minded Israelis.

Mr. Peres remained a force in Israeli politics throughout the start of the 21st century, and was voted president in 2007 by the Knesset.

"It was only in his latest version as a president that they loved him," said Anita Shapira, the author of Israel: A History. "Overall, he was a tragic figure. He wanted to do more than he could."

He never gave up on trying to advance peace with the Palestinians.

"The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment," Mr. Peres said in 2012 on accepting the Medal of Honor in Washington. "Just imagine what could be."

Write to Rory Jones at and Orr Hirschauge at