Shimon Peres Wears Hats of Peacemaker, Schemer

Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres was elected to the Israeli presidency on June 13, 2007. Jim Hollander-Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Hollander-Pool/Getty Images

No shortage of labels emerge in describing Shimon Peres — peacemaker, political schemer, elder statesman and perennial loser all among them.

But as Peres steps into the role of Israel's president, it is the elder statesmen label that is being affixed to the 83-year-old Israeli politician.

For years, the Israeli media — and to a large extent the public as well — considered Peres a lifelong loser for his failure to win a decisive victory in the polls. Peres did serve as Israel's prime minister – twice — but was never elected to that position.

Peres first served as prime minister in 1984, as part of a national unity government, after his labor party alliance failed to win an absolute majority in elections. In 1995, he ascended to the prime minister's office again after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The next year, Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu despite a wave of public sympathy he initially accrued after Rabin's assassination.

Rabin once famously called Peres "an indefatigable schemer" for his political maneuvering. Indeed, Peres has played the bare-knuckles game of Israeli politics as roughly, if not as successfully, as anyone else.

Peres' rise to the largely ceremonial post of president caps a career that has mirrored that of the state of Israel.

Born in Poland and raised on a kibbutz, Shimon Peres has held every major post in the Israeli government. He is the last politician of the "founders generation." A protégé of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, Peres lived through six wars and played a role in every twist and turn of Israeli history. Peres is a self-styled intellectual who likes to quote Trotsky, dresses nattily and speaks fluent French and English, as well as Hebrew.

Today, Peres is perceived as a dove. But that wasn't always the case. He helped found Israel's defense and aerospace industries, and was an early supporter of West Bank settlers in the 1970s. Serving as a defense official early in his career, he was instrumental in building Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona. Israel is widely believed to posses an arsenal of nuclear weapons, though it has never admitted so publicly.

In recent years, though, Peres transformed himself into Israel's No. 1 peacemaker. He helped craft the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and a year later won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for his efforts. In 1997, he founded the Peres Center for Peace.

To this day, Peres remains an idealist in a region better known for its cynicism. He still speaks enthusiastically of the need for a "new Middle East," one where economics and technology trump age-old hatreds.

"I prefer to be an idealist than to be cynical," Peres said last year in an interview with Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. "Pessimists and optimists die the same way, they just live differently."

In the political arena, though, Peres the schemer remained active until very recently. In 2005, he lost leadership of the Labor Party and, after a 38-year-alliance with the party, switched to the new, centrist Kadima party. That allowed him to serve as deputy premier under the embattled government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Peres' entire political career seems to be summed up in words uttered by his cousin, the actress Lauren Bacall. "I am not a has-been. I am a will-be."

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