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Shimon Peres, Israeli leader instrumental in peace process, dies at 93

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, an omnipresent figure of the Israeli state, chief architect of its nuclear weapons program and a driving force behind its interim peace accords with the Palestinians, died Wednesday. He was 93.

The Nobel peace laureate had been hospitalized in the city of Ramat Gan over the last two weeks after suffering a stroke.

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"With tears we confirm the passing of former President, Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Israel has lost a founding father, a light for peace," the Israel News Agency said on Twitter.

Israel Radio reported that plans had been made for a public viewing of Peres' coffin at the parliament building in Jerusalem, as is customary for former presidents and prime ministers. Cabinet officials were scheduled to convene later Wednesday to mourn together, according to the office of the prime minister.

"As a man of vision, he looked toward the future. As a man of security, he fortified the power of Israel in many ways. As a man of peace, he worked to his final days for reconciliation with our neighbors and for a better future for our children," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "There aren't many people in our history who have contributed so much to the State of Israel and the people of Israel."

Peres was an early advocate of the idea that Israel's survival depended on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. But while he helped persuade the political mainstream to accept a two-state vision, he failed repeatedly to win a popular mandate to pursue it.

"Today, with deep sorrow, we bid farewell to our beloved father,'' Peres' son, Nechemia, told reporters gathered at the hospital. "He was one of the founding fathers of the state of Israel and served our people even before we had a country of our own. He worked tirelessly for Israel from the very first day of the state to the last day of his life."

An immigrant from Poland, Peres was the perennial outsider in a ruling elite dominated by native-born Israelis. His brief service as prime minister was overshadowed by five failed bids for election to that job.

Yet he was never far from the center of power. Through persistence and longevity, he held public office longer than any other member of Israel's founding generation and attained the presidency, a ceremonial post, in his seventh decade of public life.

His legacy covered a range of military and diplomatic undertakings, some of them secretive, to preserve the Jewish state created in 1948.

His stealth missions to Europe in the 1950s helped build Israel's military-industrial complex. He supported the Jewish settler movement as it set out after the 1967 Middle East War to build militarized communities on land claimed by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Later, convinced of the need to relinquish much of that conquest, he promoted secret negotiations that led to the Oslo accords. That earned him a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The accords set up limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories. They lay groundwork for a statehood agreement that none of the three Oslo framers lived to see and, after years of sporadic violence, remains elusive.

Wednesday's news of his death was felt worldwide.

In a condolence statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described Peres as a "good partner" of the United Nations who sought to deepen Israel's contribution to the international community.

"I met Mr. Peres on many occasions, and always benefited from his views,'' Ban said. "Even in the most difficult hours, he remained an optimist about the prospects for reconciliation and peace."

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A spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry said they were expecting President Obama, Pope Francis, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, former President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to attend Peres' funeral. World leaders from Germany, France and Canada are also on the list, said the spokesman.

Until his twilight years, Peres enjoyed far more respect abroad than at home.

The wit and eloquence that charmed foreign leaders held little sway with Israeli voters, who preferred earthier politicians and military heroes. Peres, who never served in combat, was mocked at home as an "accomplished loser" who repeatedly hurt his own career through scheming, timidity, aloofness and vanity.

Although he spent 48 years in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and served in a dozen Cabinets, he gained the prime minister's job for just two short periods, first in a power-sharing deal and then in the wake of Rabin's assassination.

Only at age 83 did he find fulfillment as an elder statesman. The parliament elected him in 2007 to a seven-year term as president, making him Israel's titular head of state.

Stepping beyond the protocol duties of that office, he exerted a moderating influence on the hawkish government that came to power two years later while helping to smooth its relationships with the West.

By then his age and experience had won Peres acceptance and admiration across Israel's political spectrum.

He maintained a youthful energy and optimism late into life. He spoke passionately about nanotechnology and innovations Israel could embrace, such as stem-cell research and alternative energies to counteract the power of oil. He championed the electric car.

The novelist Amos Oz described the elder Peres, his friend, as a "rare kind of adult, who carries inside himself a living child ... who behaves as if all his life lies ahead of him."

"He is over 80, but what interests him — and this is not a pretense — is what will happen 40 years from now," Oz told Michael Bar-Zohar for the latter's biography of Peres. "He lives as if all that has happened so far is only a prelude."

Peres was born Szymon Persky on Aug. 2, 1923, in the small Jewish village of Wiszniewo, then part of Poland and now in Belarus.

His father was a lumber merchant, his mother a librarian. His maternal grandfather, a rabbi, enforced his strictly observant upbringing. Peres was a first cousin of the actress Lauren Bacall, who was born Betty Joan Perske in New York in 1924.

In 1934 Peres' Zionist father brought the family to Palestine, then ruled by the British under a United Nations mandate. In his 1995 memoir, "Battling for Peace," Peres said the move liberated him from Orthodox life. He embraced secular Zionism, helped found a kibbutz in his late teens and changed his name to Peres, Hebrew for a kind of bearded vulture.

His election as secretary-general of a socialist youth group in 1941 brought Peres to the attention of the Zionist movement's elders.

Four years later he married a fellow kibbutz member, Sonia Gelman, who would stay out of the public eye throughout his political career. They had two sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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A year before Israel's independence, Peres joined the high command of Haganah, the underground Jewish fighting force that was the precursor to the Israeli army, and became head of its manpower and weapons procurement divisions. When war erupted between Arab armies and the nascent Jewish state, he did not volunteer to fight, although his wife did.

Peres said later that his weapons procurement work was important for the nation.

And it was. He was credited with founding Israel's aerospace industry; securing a reliable flow of weapons from France in the 1950s when other Western nations were refusing to sell arms to the new state; and persuading the French government to sell Israel the reactor that formed the basis of its still-unacknowledged nuclear weapons program.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, center, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, left, leave a meeting in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 26, 2001.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, center, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, left, leave a meeting in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 26, 2001. (Ahmed Jadallah / Associated Press)

He rose through the bureaucratic ranks of the Defense Ministry as an aide and protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. He helped Ben-Gurion found Mapai, precursor to the left-leaning Labor Party that would dominate Israeli politics for nearly three decades.

But his lack of combat action would prove to be a liability in a nation that valued politicians with leadership experience in battle.

That handicap hurt Peres in his rivalry with Rabin, an independence war hero who usually overshadowed his Labor Party colleague.

The native-born Rabin treated Peres with contempt during much of their relationship, a long-running drama that helped define Israel's rough-and-tumble politics from the 1960s until Rabin's death in 1995.

Peres became defense minister in 1974 at the start of Rabin's first term as prime minister. Rabin said later he made the appointment against his better judgment, under pressure from his rival's supporters.

"I did not consider Peres suitable, since he had never fought in the [army] and his expertise in arms purchasing did not make up for that lack of experience," Rabin wrote in his memoir. Peres later used the Defense Ministry's powers to undermine him at every turn, Rabin complained.

Each man took credit for masterminding the 1976 commando operation that rescued Israeli and Jewish hostages held by Palestinian and German hijackers at Uganda's Entebbe airport. Each accused the other of poor leadership in that confrontation.

As defense minister, Peres oversaw the occupied territories and was supportive, historians say, of the large-scale colonization by Jewish settlers that would complicate his later efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.

For much of his career, Peres suffered from his identity as an outsider.

Israelis poked fun at his mannerisms and the Polish accent he never lost. Israel calls its native-born sons and daughters "sabras" after the desert fruit that is soft on the inside but prickly on the outside. Unlike the sabra, Peres was always smooth and well-polished on the outside.

Inside he was shy; he rarely displayed emotion in public. Until his later years, Israelis sensed in him an all-consuming political ambition rather than any solid ideological foundation. They were uneasy with his styled hair, well-cut suits, flowery rhetoric and penchants for traveling abroad and surrounding himself with intellectuals.

In his memoir, Rabin branded Peres an "indefatigable schemer," and the criticism hurt. Armed with Rabin's writings, the right-wing Likud party painted Peres as a scoundrel and defeated him in a string of elections after Rabin's resignation in an ethics scandal in 1977.

Peres became prime minister in 1984, but only in a power-sharing accord with Likud after elections failed to produce a clear winner.

He served for two years, instituting policies that sharply reduced Israel's triple-digit inflation and its military occupation of Lebanon.

After handing the job to Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir, Peres became foreign minister but ran afoul of his boss. He met secretly with Jordan's King Hussein and struck a deal to open Arab-Israeli peace talks. Shamir rejected it.

That effort signaled Peres' commitment to territorial compromise. He later wrote that the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, which erupted in 1987, could have been avoided had the Reagan administration persuaded Shamir to accept the agreement.

Fed up with Peres' election losses, Labor turned again to Rabin, who led it to victory in 1992.

With Rabin in the top job and Peres as foreign minister, the old rivals found grudging mutual respect and worked together to advance peace negotiations.

Peres, then Israeli president, welcomes Pope Benedict XVI to Israel on May 11, 2009.
Peres, then Israeli president, welcomes Pope Benedict XVI to Israel on May 11, 2009. (Pier Paolo Cito / Associated Press)

The following year Peres learned from his deputy about exploratory discussions underway in Norway between Israeli academics and emissaries of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Peres then persuaded Rabin to upgrade the secret contacts, opening formal negotiations with the PLO.

Peres would become the Israeli leader most closely identified with the outcome, the 1993 Oslo agreements.

In the right-wing backlash against the accords, a Jewish extremist assassinated Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally in November 1995. The gunman later told investigators he had intended to kill Peres too, but Peres left the stage a few minutes before Rabin did.

The killing brought Peres back to the prime minister's office to lead a nation in mourning and to organize elections. He accelerated the army's withdrawal from Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

But a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings was turning the Israeli mood against the Oslo accords. Peres lost the 1996 vote to Likud's Netanyahu, and the peace process stalled.

Peres' career seemed finished in 2000 when he ran for president and lost to a relatively obscure Likud politician, Moshe Katsav, in an upset vote in parliament.

After three stints as Labor leader, he lost the post in 2005 and quit the party, his longtime ideological home on the left.

By that time the momentum of the Oslo accords had collapsed in the violence of a second Palestinian uprising. Seeking a new path, Peres joined forces with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as Sharon left Likud in 2005 to form a new centrist party, Kadima.

He supported Sharon's decision to pull Israel's troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip unilaterally, calling it a victory for his philosophy that the land must be partitioned between two peoples, with or without negotiations.

"I didn't join Sharon," he said. "Sharon joined me."

The move did not bring calm. Hamas militants took over Gaza and used it as a base to fire rockets into Israel, discrediting Kadima's aim of unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank as well.

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But that did not discourage Peres, who backed a new round of peace talks with the late Arafat's heirs in the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership.

"Shimon really believes in the chance to make peace," Sharon said before suffering a stroke and falling into a coma in 2006. "He tried and didn't let go.... He is the man who never despairs."

The Israeli electorate did not always share his optimism. Three years after Ehud Olmert took over from the disabled Sharon and made Peres his deputy, a Likud-led coalition with Netanyahu at the helm returned to power in 2009.

By that time, Peres was president, enjoying a political rebirth. His prestige at home was enhanced, paradoxically, by the advent of Netanyahu's conservative government and its initial resistance to the U.S.-backed goal of Palestinian statehood.

Peres played a quiet mediating role between Netanyahu and President Obama. He visited the new American leader before Netanyahu did, to try to smooth the way.

Then he helped coax Netanyahu to accept the idea of a Palestinian state, albeit with limitations — a shift that vindicated Peres' long-held view.

According to Israeli media reports, Peres held several rounds of secret talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about renewing frozen negotiations with Netanyahu, but the effort did not succeed.

Israelis felt more comfortable with Peres as an international spokesman for their country than they did with Netanyahu's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

They also valued Peres for restoring honor to the presidency. His predecessor, Katsav, was indicted on charges of rape, indecent acts and sexual harassment; Katsav's predecessor, the late Ezer Weizman, stepped down early amid allegations of financial wrongdoing.

After leaving office, Peres never completely retired from public life: He continued to work with the peace center that carried his name and he continued to hold forth on foreign affairs in media interviews.

"I have one weakness,'' he told Israel's Army Radio in November. "I don't like vacations. I like to work."

Boudreaux is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

11:43 p.m.: This article was updated with world leaders expected to attend Peres' funeral.

11:26 p.m.: This article was updated with a statements from world leaders.

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Peres' son.

This article was originally published at 7:25 p.m.

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