The last American founding father, James Madison, died in 1836, 60 years after independence had been declared. Today, in the 68th year of its independence, Israel experienced the loss of its own last founding father. Shimon Peres was the last statesman who had been a force in Israeli life from independence in 1948 through all of its wars and all of its peace treaties, and served as Israel’s president until 2014.
Peres, who was born in what was then Poland, was in Israeli government and politics for two thirds of a century. The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 had been Director General of its Ministry of Defense in the early 1950s, where he played a key role in securing the arms that allowed Israel to survive Arab attacks.
Peres was 93, and until the last year his vitality was astonishing. He could have passed for a healthy man in his 70s. This longevity and energy help explain his decades of influence on Israeli political life.
This is not to say that Peres was Israel’s greatest hero: its generals and its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, vie for that honor. Nor was he its greatest prime minister or political leader. He was actually unpopular in many quarters, and lost numerous elections, until in old age he won the respect to which his career entitled him. Peres was long criticized for excessive optimism about peace with Israel’s neighbors, so it is ironic that when he passed from the scene his predictions appeared in some important ways to be coming true. Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan are close and cooperative, at least on security matters, and now relations with the Gulf states appear to be warming up. I recall Ariel Sharon saying to me in 2005 that Israel did not seek to be the lion but refused to be the lamb either. The Arab lions are not exactly lying down with the Israeli lamb today, but they are not attacking it either and many governments appear to be realizing that cooperation with Israel can be to everyone’s benefit.
I first met Peres in 1981. What I recall vividly about many meetings with Peres was his focus on the future. He reveled in hi-tech, not in nostalgia. He was fascinated by nanotechnology, for example, and it was hard to have a meal with him without hearing him speak of the newest frontiers of Israeli technology. He greatly preferred talking about coming decades to reminiscing about earlier ones. Perhaps that is what kept him young into his tenth decade.
Israelis will miss him-- for his optimism, for his lifetime of service, and for this symbolic passing of their founding generation.