When Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, suffered a stroke, it was obvious that this was a battle that he was unlikely to win. After all, at 93, he had already lived way beyond the average, and he had lived a much fuller life than some half dozen people put together.
He had been a kibbutznik, a farmer, a social activist, a defender of women’s rights and minority rights, a poet, a politician, a hawk, a dove, a planner for war and a maker of peace.
He had traveled to almost every country with which Israel had diplomatic relations and to some with which Israel had no relations – at least on the surface. He had held more ministerial posts than anyone else, including two stints as prime minister. He had also been defense minister, foreign minister and finance minister, holding the most important of all portfolios.
He was privy to the bulk of the state secrets, and he had been the architect for so much of Israel’s development in security, aviation, defense equipment, industry, science and technology. He had worked tirelessly and unceasingly on many fronts for his beloved Israel, literally till the day of his collapse.
I had known, hours before his death, that there was no longer any hope, having spoken to a senior figure from the Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department who was heavily involved in the funeral details. And yet, until I heard just after 5 o’clock on Wednesday that he had died in the wee hours of the morning, I refused to believe that Peres, the latter- day Methuselah, would not survive.
When I heard the announcement on Israel Radio, I wept.
The first time I met him, in August 1973, only three months after my arrival in Israel, I did not like him. It was an election year, and there were eligible voters in my absorption center.
Invited to the circumcision ceremony of the grandson of Australian community leader and philanthropist Isi Magid, I encountered Peres and asked him why no politician had come to speak to the new immigrants.
“Send me a note,” he replied airily.
“What do you mean send you a note?” I countered. “I’m talking to you.”
At that time there were numerous stories about Pinhas Sapir, the legendary finance minister, who carried a little black book in which he jotted down all the important things that he observed or that people told him. I naively thought that all government ministers carried a little black book for such a purpose.
In later years, as I reported events in which he participated, I learned to respect his ability to dust himself off from defeat and to simply find another goal and another path, and to keep going and to keep dreaming.
Despair was a momentary emotion with him. He never gave in to it.
But during his seven years as president, I learned not only to respect him but to admire him greatly. It was my good fortune to be assigned to cover the activities of the president for The Jerusalem Post
. For many reporters, this would have been a frustrating assignment, not to be regarded as a career coup. The president is only a ceremonial position.
It doesn’t lead to anything.
For me, a lover of human-interest anecdotes and a history buff, it was a seven-year joy.
Peres had a never-ending fund of stories, which he shared with new ambassadors presenting credentials, and with heads of organizations and institutions with which he had been associated. He could speak to new ambassadors about long-dead or long-deposed leaders of their countries whom he had met personally, about his visits to various places in their countries, about the writings of their great poets and authors. His range of knowledge and experience simply defied imagination, and I had the privilege of being there and soaking it up like a sponge.
He was also kind and considerate.
When I traveled to Poland with him, his staff noticed that I declined to eat the food handed out in the bus because it was not kosher. However, the food at the guest house of the presidential palace where Peres was staying, quite close to the hotel in which the journalists were accommodated, did have kosher food, and I was invited to dine with the president.
When I was part of his entourage when he traveled to Argentina, someone tripped me up as I exited the journalists’ van, and I went flying into the hotel wall and broke my shoulder. Peres sent his personal physician to examine me, and later telephoned me to tell me how sorry he was that I had to endure such a painful experience as a broken shoulder.
Peres had a soft spot for journalists and often defied his PR people who tried to shield him from our questions, knowing that he might be too candid in his answers.
But what they did give in to was his determination when we traveled abroad that the journalists be included in as many items on his itinerary as possible. Thus, when we were in Mexico, and he was to be hosted at a state dinner, he and his spokeswoman Ayelet Frish insisted that the Israeli journalists be invited.
This is not common practice in Mexico, and no provision had been made for us to attend other than to hear the speeches. We were to dine elsewhere. But in the final analysis, places were also found for us at the various tables.
Peres did not stop working after leaving the presidency, and his zest for innovation remained as strong as ever, as did his zeal for overseas travel and his quest for knowledge through voracious reading and meetings of the minds.
Some half dozen of the people who worked with him when he was president accompanied him to the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa and worked even more closely with him to turn his dreams into realties, and were extremely visible at Sheba Medical Center during his final illness. They were part of his extended family, especially Yona Bartal, who had accompanied him for some 30 years. He had been part of her family’s celebrations and sorrows, and she had been part of his family’s celebrations and sorrows.
Peres made history as an individual, and to a large extent steered the history of the nation. He was fond of saying that one cannot change what had happened in the past, but one could be responsible for what will happen in the future.
When he was asked to remove the bust and photograph of his predecessor Moshe Katsav, who is completing a prison term on charges of rape and other sexual offenses, Peres refused, saying that Katsav had been president, and that this was something one could not deny.
It is to be hopped that Katsav and former prime minister Ehud Olmert will be permitted to leave prison to attend Peres’s funeral.
Both had close relations with him, and Katsav even hosted Peres’s 80th birthday which was attended by Bill Clinton and other world dignitaries.
Peres served with Olmert in the defunct Kadima Party that was founded by Ariel Sharon, who died in January 2014.
He was forgiving of lesser crimes than sexual offenses. When Arye Deri was still under a cloud after completing his prison term on charges of corruption, he invited President Peres to the Mimouna festivities in his home – and Peres accepted the invitation. This may very well have been a contributing factor to Deri’s political rehabilitation.
The passing of Peres marks the end of the Ben-Gurion era. Peres and his great friend, Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, who died last November, were lifelong disciples of Ben-Gurion and continued to quote him at every opportunity.
In the days when Peres headed the Labor Party, it was suggested to Navon that he run against him, and Navon refused, saying that he didn’t think he could beat him.
But in one respect he did triumph over Peres. Navon was 94 when he died. Peres was 93.
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