Young Labour party activists celebrate the life and legacy of Shimon Peres
Dozens of young activists from Israel’s Labour party youth wing gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Thursday evening to pay tribute to Shimon Peres, the late former Israeli Prime Minister, Nobel Laureate, and one-time Labour Party Chairman who died on Wednesday at the age of 93.
One of Israel’s longest serving politicians, Peres was first elected to parliament in 1959 and since then has held nearly every major office in Israel, serving twice as Prime Minister, as well as Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and President.
And while Peres was not always highly esteemed -- often making unpopular decisions and overshadowed by the political greats who came before him, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon -- his enduring spirit and optimism has made him one of Israel’s most prominent political figures and the beloved “grandfather of Israel” to a younger generation.
“More than anything else I think he was beloved because he kept hope. He had a long term vision of hope. To the very end he believed in hope and the optimism he had spoke through generations,” says historian and Newsweek history editor Marc Shulman.
“Certainly no Israeli politicians embody that today,” he adds. “In today’s politics of the black future, they don’t sell hope.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many of the young Labour activists who have gathered in Tel Aviv to pay their final respects to Peres, who served the party from 1968 to 2005.
“A lot of times we say, ‘Oh there is no hope.’ But Peres created hope no matter where he went,” says 31-year-old Ariel Kedem. “And I think that is what we should take from Peres to inspire ourselves and our leadership and our movement.”
“There’s a lot of wind here tonight and we had trouble lighting the candles. So every time someone tried and it went out I told them, ‘you know, Peres wouldn’t give up,’” Kedem says.
Labor Party Chairman and leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog made a brief appearance at the small event to light a candle, but the focus of the event was truly a celebration of the legacy Peres leaves behind.
“I hope his legacy will be his endless quest for peace,” says 27-year-old Tal Elovits, citing Peres’ involvement in negotiations with the Jordanians prior to the signing of a peace treaty in 1994 and the Oslo Accords, for which Peres, Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat jointly won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
While Peres’ peace efforts are most recent and therefore easily recalled (Peres remained active in promoting coexistence between Arabs and Jews through his namesake Peres Center for Peace after retiring from politics in 2014) the so-called ‘hawk turned dove’ was also notably involved in Israel’s military and defense establishments.
“When history is written, what he will have done for the State of Israel will be what he has done in the area of defense,” Shulman argues, pointing out that Peres’ negotiation of arms agreements with France was a key factor in Israel’s make-or-break victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Six-Day War, against neighboring Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Peres was also instrumental in the development of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor and co-founded Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the RAFAEL Armament Development Authority during his tenure as Defense Minister.
“What will remain of Oslo? It’s unclear. But certainly whatever peace we end up with will have gone a long and tortured route from Oslo,” Shulman adds.
Indeed, while United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Peres as “tireless in seeking peace” he lamented that 23 years after the signing of the first Oslo Accords, “we are further than ever from its goals.”
And while some may find Peres’ military and defense achievements hard to reconcile with his peace-builder image, others say they represent two sides of the same coin and illustrate the complexities of Israel’s modern center-left movement.
Kedem, who says he remembers being inspired as a young boy by Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres, feels as though Israel’s center-leftists are viewed as “not contributing to the security of Israel” and “some kind of internal enemy.”
“But that’s not true. Peace is not just the right way because we are humanistic...But for the national security of Israel, peace is the solution. I think there is no conflict between [Peres] being a man of peace and being a man of security. It goes together,” Kedem says.
“All of us are hoping one day to have another man, or woman, who will lead us with the same strengths, motivations, and courage like Peres,” Kedem concludes.
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