On little sleep, Israel's Peres persevered in peace, politics

(Reuters) - For many years Shimon Peres, who died on Wednesday at the age of 93, got by on very little sleep.

Shimon Peres during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Jerusalem, June 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

He was in his mid-70s when I asked him how much rest he averaged each night given his tireless engagement in public life for what was already more than half a century.

“Five hours,” he said.

Israel’s perpetual prophet of peace, Peres held every top job in the cabinet.

He served as president, bringing vitality to a largely ceremonial job during a seven-year term that ended in 2014, days shy of his 91st birthday.

In interviews and informal chats we had through the years, Peres never abandoned his enthusiasm for the political battlefield, even when it meant enduring the scorn of countrymen who tagged him a dreamer.

Although his oratory and diplomacy made him a welcome visitor throughout much of the world, his optimism often seemed out of place in the rough-and-tumble world of Israeli politics.

He persisted nevertheless.


Peres was in equal measure a hawk and a dove.

Groomed for leadership by Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, Peres already was building the country’s defenses before its creation in 1948.

He helped turn Israel in its early years into a nuclear power by procuring the secret Dimona reactor from France. As foreign minister in 1993, he and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sealed the Oslo accords, a groundbreaking 1993 interim peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I felt that Israel must become strong enough so she will be able to make peace,” he said. He adhered to that position even as his dream of a lasting peace in a new Middle East proved to be elusive.


Peres smiled during an interview when I asked what Rabin said to him in the moments they shook hands with Yasser Arafat to cement the Oslo accords.

We on the sun-bleached White House lawn could hardly believe our eyes when Rabin and Arafat, the Palestinian leader, reached across decades of war and enmity to shake hands.

When next Arafat extended his hand to Peres, Rabin pointed at Peres and said something.

“Now it’s your turn,” Rabin told him. It was “as though we are going to commit something of a terrible nature,” Peres told me with a broad smile.

Nearly as surprising as the accord itself was the fact the gray-haired Peres and Rabin, rivals for decades, had made peace with each other.


At various points in his career, Peres angered Palestinians by seeming to do little to rein in the expansion of Israeli settlements on land captured during the 1967 Middle East war.

When he and Rabin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat in 1994, Peres said he was keenly aware of the need to show respect when negotiating with the Palestinian leader.

“Occasionally I warned myself, ‘Don’t be too successful. It may be counterproductive. Don’t press him too much. Don’t try to squeeze out too much. You must be generous enough to enable him to remain a partner.’”

Asked if Arafat had shown him the same respect, Peres told me, “I am not sure. I think for him I was a strange continent ... I think deep in his heart he understood that I am not an enemy, that I mean well, but he, too ... was afraid that I am trying to overpower him, that I am trying to push him in a corner.”

On Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, said he had sent a condolence letter to Peres’s family praising the Israeli’s “intensive efforts to reach out for a lasting peace ... until the last days.”


In November 1995, nearly 26 months after the Oslo accords ceremony, a Jewish gunman opposed to peace moves with the Palestinians killed Rabin in Tel Aviv.

Minutes earlier, the prime minister had given Peres, his onetime rival, a hug at a peace rally.

“You see,” Rabin told reporters. “Things change not only in the world but also in the Middle East - also for us.”

Years after the White House handshakes, his Oslo peace deal in tatters, Peres clung to power, aspiring, he said, to forge a better life for his children and grandchildren.


In 1999, Peres was running a Tel Aviv peace center that to this day bears his name. Ehud Barak, his successor as Labor Party leader, was standing for prime minister.

Peres took a deep breath when I asked if he would prefer to be making another run at Israel’s top job himself.

“Look, you have your own fate and your own luck and there is no sense to be angry or to be pessimistic. It’s a total waste of time, and to be fair I got my opportunities,” Peres said.

The last of Israel’s founding fathers, Peres then served in several more cabinets before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, elected him president.

(Reuters editor Howard Goller reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 1984-2001)

Reporting by Howard Goller; Editing by Toni Reinhold