Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres was born in Poland in 1923. To escape the persecution of Jews there, the family fled to Palestine in 1934—relatives who remained in Poland were killed during World War II. Peres grew up in Tel Aviv and studied agricultural science. He spent several years in Kibbutz Geva and Kibbutz Alumot and was elected secretary of the Labor Zionist youth movement in 1943.

As part of his legacy, Peres has been closely associated with the development of Israel’s defense capabilities. In the late 1940s, he joined the Haganah, the Zionist military organization, and was responsible for manpower and arms. After statehood was declared in 1948, he served as head of Israel’s navy and later led the defense ministry’s delegation to the U.S. He joined the Ministry of Defense in 1952 and was appointed director-general, a position he held until 1959, when he was elected a member of the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body.

Peres held many cabinet positions, but he is perhaps best known for his work as Israel’s prime minister—from 1984 to 1986 and from 1995 to 1996. During his first term, he participated in 14 separate meetings in Oslo, Norway, with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, negotiating a path to peace for Israel and Palestine. The meetings were lengthy and complex, but throughout, the participants stayed in the same residence and often shared meals, creating an important bond. The Oslo Peace Accords were eventually signed by both sides on September 13, 1993, at the White House in Washington, D.C. The agreement aimed at reconciling the two peoples, with Israel gradually withdrawing from occupied territories and granting the Palestinians self-determination. In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Arafat, Rabin, and Peres “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East” and the art of reconciliation.

In 2007, Peres was nominated by Kadima, a centrist and liberal political party in Israel, to run for president. The Knesset elected him to serve as the ninth president of Israel for a seven-year term on June 13 of that year, marking the first time a former prime minister was also elected as president. He served until 2014. At the time of his retirement, Peres was the world’s oldest head of state.

In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Shimon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed in the U.S., for his “meritorious contributions to world peace.” Peres died in Tel Aviv on September 27, 2016, at age 93. Obama attended his funeral and ordered all flags on U.S. federal property to be flown at half-staff, in memory of the last of Israel’s founding fathers.