Shimon Peres, former prime minister of Israel, dead at 93

Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of Israel's founding fathers, has died. He was 93.

Funeral for Nobel Peace Prize winner, who served 3 terms as PM, will be Friday

Israel's President Shimon Peres is shown at a 2012 meeting at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Peres played a part in the country's tumultuous history for over six decades beginning with its inception, including as president, prime minister and defence minister. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president and prime minister, whose life story mirrored that of the Jewish state and who was celebrated around the world as a Nobel prize-winning visionary who pushed his country toward peace, has died at 93.

Chemi Peres, his son, confirmed the statesman's death with "deep sorrow," as Peres's condition worsened following a major stroke two weeks ago.

"Our father's legacy has always been to look to tomorrow. 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," said Chemi Peres. "We share this pain together."

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 its 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.

One of the country's most admired leaders, Peres first became a member of Israel's parliament in 1959. He held virtually every senior political office in Israel over his seven-decade career, including three terms as prime minister, as well as stints as foreign minister and finance minister.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observes a moment of silence at the start of a special cabinet meeting next to a photograph of former Israeli leader Shimon Peres. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Peres in a video statement on Wednesday, shortly before convening his Cabinet for a special session.

Netanyahu said that Peres "never stopped trying to reach to peace and believing in peace. His hand was always extended to a historic compromise with our neighbours, and even if this compromise tarried, he taught us never to give in to despair, but to cling to hope."

Netanyahu, a longtime political rival of Peres, admitted that the two "had differences of opinion" but said their relations strengthened with time.

Officials said that Peres's body would lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday to allow the public to pay final respects. His funeral was set for Friday 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.

Shimon Peres, former president of Israel, dead at 93

6 years ago
Duration 3:22
CBC's Adrienne Arsenault looks at the life and legacy of one of Israel's founding fathers

Israel's Foreign Ministry said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles are among the dignitaries expected to attend. The Vatican said Pope Francis will not be able to attend as he is scheduled to begin a three-day trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan that day.

As word of Peres's death spread, reaction started pouring in from around the globe.

Obama recalled a relationship that began when he was a U.S. senator, and included a poignant visit to Israel's official memorial to victims of the Holocaust.

"Whether it was during our conversations in the Oval Office, walking together through Yad Vashem, or when I presented him with America's highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom, Shimon always looked to the future," said Obama. "He was guided by a vision of the human dignity and progress that he knew people of goodwill could advance together."

Nobel Peace Prize winner

The Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian advocacy group, hailed Peres as a leader who "embodied the timeless aspiration of the Israeli people for a future in which their children will live in peace and security."

"President Shimon Peres was a visionary, statesman, philanthropist and a giant of Israeli life whose private and professional accomplishments over seven decades read like the history of the modern state of Israel," said David J. Cape, CIJA Chair.

Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in reaching an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, claiming it alongside late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Accepting the award, he told assembled dignitaries that "war, as a method of conducting human affairs, is in its death throes, and the time has come to bury it."

Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli ultra-nationalist who opposed the interim accords. Peres took over as prime minister after Rabin's death, but after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres's own election loss to the more conservative Netanyahu, the prospects for peace began to evaporate.

Until the end, Peres remained hopeful.

"I'm sure I shall see peace in my lifetime. Even if I should have to extend my life for a year or two, I won't hesitate," he said in a 2013 interview marking his 90th birthday.

Celebrated by doves, criticized by hawks

As president, a largely ceremonial office he won in 2007, he cultivated an image as the country's elder statesman and became a popular fixture at international conferences like the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

Peres remained active since completing his seven-year term as president in 2014 and was one of the country's most popular public figures.

He often hosted public events at his peace centre, bringing together Arabs and Jews in efforts to promote peace and coexistence.

Despite his accomplishments, 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who asked South Africa in the 1980s to free Nelson Mandela in a prisoner swap, met with then-president Mandela in Cape Town a decade later. (Reuters)

Peres was celebrated by doves and vilified by hawks for advocating far-reaching Israeli compromises for peace even before he secretly brokered the historic Oslo interim peace accords with the Palestinians, signed at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, which set into motion a partition plan that gave them limited self-rule.

That was followed by a peace accord with neighbouring Jordan.

He finally secured the public adoration that had long eluded him when he has chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as Israel's ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.

Shimon Perski was born on Aug. 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his immediate family. Her grandfather and other relatives stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide to Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and a man Peres once called "the greatest Jew of our time." 

Credited with military build-up

At 29, he was the youngest person to serve as director of Israel's Defense Ministry, and is credited with arming Israel's military almost from scratch. Yet throughout his political career, he suffered from the fact that he never wore an army uniform or fought in a war.

Of his 10 books, several amplified his vision of a "new Middle East" where there was peaceful economic and cultural cooperation among all the nations of the region.

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.

Shimon Peres bowed out of active political life in 2014. He held virtually every senior political office in Israel over a seven-decade career. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Shunted aside during the 1999 election campaign, won by party colleague Ehud Barak, Peres rejected advice to retire, assuming the newly created and loosely defined Cabinet post of Minister for Regional Cooperation.

In 2000, Peres absorbed another resounding political slap, losing an election in the parliament for the largely ceremonial post of president to Likud Party backbencher Moshe Katsav, who was later convicted and imprisoned for rape.

Even so, Peres refused to quit. In 2001, at age 77, he took the post of foreign minister in the government of national unity set up by Ariel Sharon, serving for 20 months before Labor withdrew from the coalition.

Then he followed Sharon into a new party, Kadima, serving as vice-premier under Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert, before assuming the presidency.

Peres married his wife Sonya in 1945. The couple were married until her death in 2011, and were parents to two sons and a daughter.

Shimon Peres: 'War unites, peace divides.'

6 years ago
Duration 1:11
Interview with Peter Mansbridge originally aired March 2006

With files from CBC News and Reuters