Shimon Peres, the Realist Dreamer

Shimon Peres at home in Jerusalem just before celebrations to commemorate his 90th birthday in 2013. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Shimon Peres at home in Jerusalem just before celebrations to commemorate his 90th birthday in 2013. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

There are very few people in the world whose lives align so effortlessly with the birth and being of their homeland. Shimon Peres, who has died at age 93, left an indelible mark on Israel — fighting for its independence, its security, and then, for its peace. It is difficult to imagine Israel’s past without him; it will be even harder to imagine its future.

In my family home, when I was growing up, Mr. Peres represented the “other side.” A man of the left, he was my parents’ political rival, very deeply a part of the Labor Party-dominated establishment that excluded them. Still, in many ways, it was his initiative, the Oslo Accords — a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization that split Israeli society squarely in two — that moved me into the world of politics.

The cabinet post to which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed me in 2001 in his first government meant, symbolically, trying to fill Mr. Peres’s colossal shoes as minister of Regional Cooperation, while Mr. Peres himself stepped into the lead position at the Foreign Ministry. I had hardly moved my things into my new office when Mr. Peres took me on my first ministerial trip to New York.

The moment we stepped off the plane, he transformed before my eyes from an antediluvian Israeli politician into a sprightly statesman. The image I had of him shattered; I saw a person who wanted to make the impossible possible.

That trip, he was on a mission to persuade American skeptics to bring life to the Dead Sea by building a canal from the Red Sea. He wanted to make the desert bloom and, in his region-conscious way, Israel’s neighbor Jordan, too. After a day full of conversations, speeches and events about this plan, I was exhausted — but he wasn’t done. For Mr. Peres, the night was young, and back out we went.

The affection he found abroad and his unflagging personal convictions gave him strength to face the powerful criticisms and hatred that were leveled at him at home. When fellow Israelis called him a traitor and screamed “Oslo criminal,” it hurt him. We could all see it in his eyes; he wanted to be loved — but he was not willing to give up on his beliefs.

I saw it every time I watched him ignore the cynics, risk being called naïve, and continue doggedly to speak for and pursue peace. This was the lesson that every leader needs to learn: Follow your inner compass no matter what.

Shimon Peres did receive the love of the nation as president. His death is, in a very real way, the death of a man who had become a symbol of peace for Israel. While his passing marks the end of an era — he was the last of the generation of founding fathers and their political leadership — it must not be the end of hope. The dream of peace will not die with the man of peace. There are still those of us in Israel who demand the right to live in peace and security, seeing, as he did, those terms as complementary, not contradictory.

Israelis today feel that the extremists and terrorists in our region have them backed up against a wall. Their despondency at this situation dampens their hopes for a peaceful future. Some politicians exploit their fears, whether out of ideological conviction or for political purposes, describing peace as a threat, not an aspiration. They have succeeded in sullying the very word, making it synonymous with what is illegitimate and foolhardy.

Mr. Peres proved that while politicians think about tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, real leaders think about the history books. We need more like him, more who are willing to leave the noise at the door, sit down and — for the sake of our people, for the sake of our future — make the right decisions.

Thoughts of the future never left Mr. Peres, even after he stood down as Israel’s president in 2014. As always, he surprised me: a man of his age, talking about his plans for the future, about new technology and new possibilities for changing the world. These were plans he was never able to see through; that conversation would be our last.

The previous year, at the opening of the last round of peace negotiations, three of us — the United States secretary of state, John Kerry, the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and I, then Israel’s justice minister — stood together at a news conference in Washington. I concluded my remarks by saying that “history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists unafraid to dream.”

I didn’t think of Shimon Peres then, but it was my first thought when he died.

Tzipi Livni, the joint leader of the Zionist Union, is a former foreign minister of Israel.

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