28 September 2016 marked a day of global mourning with the death of former President and Prime Minister of Israel Shimon Peres who passed at the age of 93. Leaders and statesmen from all over the world gathered to pay tribute to Peres and reflect on his impactful career as a leader. Leaders such as France’s Francois Hollande, the United Kingdom’s Theresa May, and the United Nations’ Ban Ki-moon all paid tribute to name a few; President Barack Obama called Peres ‘the essence of Israel itself.’ Furthermore, the ceremony resulted in one of the most defining moments in recent history with a handshake between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the two leaders have not engaged in formal talks since 2014, the handshake was still seen as a symbol of potential peace. Known as one of the last members of the founding generation of Israel, Peres was the ‘face of the Jewish state… instantly recognised and well-respected.’
Born in Poland in 1923, Peres immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1934 as an adolescent with his family. Throughout his career of over sixty years, which involved appointments as Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance and Transportation, Prime Minister, and President, Peres was responsible for a number of landmark negotiations and efforts. In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, he was ‘appointed head of the naval services’ and then ‘headed the Defence Ministry’s procurement delegation to the United States. He founded the country’s nuclear program, negotiated ‘key arms deals with France and Germany,’ and engaged in peace talks with the rest of the Middle East such as his address to the Turkish Parliament in 2007. He was the ‘first Israeli president to speak to a Muslim country’s legislature.’
Peres’ most lauded milestone was his effort in the Oslo Peace Accord negotiations (which were finalised on 13 September 1993) with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, earning the three men the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. The accords’ aim was to have Israel accept the Palestine Liberations Organizations (PLO) as the representative of Palestine and to have the PLO ‘[renounce] terrorism and [recognise] Israel’s right to exist in peace.’ Furthermore, the accords were to establish ‘permanent status talks on the issues of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem’ that would take place in the future. President Bill Clinton, who ‘helped to negotiate the Oslo peace accords’, stated that Peres was ‘Israel’s biggest dreamer,’ that he ‘started life as Israel’s brightest student’ and ‘became its best teacher.’
Peres’ actions led to the ‘Historic Handshake’ between then Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman of the PLO Arafat. This handshake represented the possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine for both populations. An article published in The New York Times stated this ‘gesture was both unprecedented and historic’ because ‘up to that time, Israel has refused to negotiate directly with the PLO’; essentially, Peres ‘broke taboo, and the impasse’. While these negotiations deteriorated rapidly with the assassination of Rabin and the appointment of Netanyahu as Prime Minister, whose party (the Likud Party) has ‘historically opposed Palestinian statehood,’ Peres did not waver in his goal towards peace in the Middle East. After the death of Arafat in 2004, Peres proceeded to work on peace settlements between Israel and Jordan, particularly to relieve the tension in the West Bank and Gaza. In 2006, Peres made a statement that embodied the idea of peace in the Middle East; he said ‘our enemies are not Muslims, are not Christians, are not Arabs, and not Palestinians. The enemies of all of us is the use of terror.’ This statement was a crucial indicator of the idea that Israel’s government was not inherently against Palestine or the rest of the Muslim world. Peres was the leading spokesman for peace between Israel and Palestine and is held responsible for making the most significant steps in alleviating the relationship between the two states.
Looking to the future, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour reported that the death of Peres might be seen, according to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as the death of peace. Amanpour went on to say that when she interviewed Peres, he ‘never gave up hope’ and that ‘he had come to believe in the importance of hearing and understanding the story of the other.’ This empathy towards others is supposedly what is missing in today’s interactions between Israel and Palestine. Questions are being raised about whether the two countries will be able to reach the same – albeit brief – proximity for peace as they did during Peres’ life. While Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas did indeed exchange an extraordinary handshake, ‘the two men have often been on opposite sides of a divide that sometimes seems unbridgeable.’ President Obama went on to say President Abbas‘ presence [at the ceremony] was a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.’ It is precisely this ‘unfinished business of peace’ that begs the questions as to whether the death of Peres served as a way for world leaders to reflect on the past of an admired leader, or to learn from him and pave the way to a future of peace.