I treasure my photograph with the silver-haired Shimon Peres, who always had a twinkle in his eye and a quick smile.
We first met in the greenroom of ABC News in Washington, D.C., in April 1996 before his interview with Ted Koppel, who was then my boss. It was a tense time in the Middle East. In response to increased attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon, then-Israeli Prime Minister Peres had ordered artillery strikes that had hit a U.N. compound in the Lebanese village of Qana. (Five months earlier, Peres’ friend and predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, had been gunned down after a rally supporting the Oslo peace process. A month after the ABC interview, Peres’ re-election bid would fall short against Benjamin Netanyahu.)
Despite the fragility of the peace process, and the controversy swirling around him on that April evening in 1996, Peres was calm, gracious, and thoughtful, taking time to autograph pictures with staff.
Years later, I caught up with him in April 2011 on another visit to Washington. Then Israel’s president, Peres spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where I was served as executive vice president. It was the perfect place to host a man whose vision of the world was one devoid of war.
I remember that night well. Peres — who died on Tuesday, Sept. 27 after being hospitalized following a stroke — took questions from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in the institute’s Great Hall, under its dove-shaped roof, designed, ironically by Moshe Safdie, an Israeli-Canadian architect who had worked on Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Peres’ visit came at another fragile time in the Middle East. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were stalled. Fatah, the leading faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had agreed to share power with Hamas. The peace process seemed frozen.
Blitzer asked about the chances of a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. “It’s a possibility not a certainty,” Peres responded in his deep Israeli voice and thick accent. “I wouldn’t exclude it but wouldn’t say it’s already achieved. Because all of us, including the Israelis and Palestinians, we know that to move ahead involves taking risks and people don’t feel easy taking risks. It’s not a game. You may endanger your life. But not to take a risk is even more risky.”
It was vintage Peres — bold, optimistic, and practical.
Born in the village of Visheva in what was White Russia, Peres knew a thing or two about the risks of war. In 1932, his father fled anti-Semitic pogroms and made the trek to the Holy Land in British-controlled Palestine to pave the way for Peres and those who followed two years later. Those who stayed behind — including his grandparents and uncle — were locked inside their synagogue and burned alive by German soldiers and local forces.
And yet this man, who could have been destined to hate, worked for peace. He became a leader in a new nation, and a man for all seasons. He spoke English, French, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. He studied economics and philosophy. He wrote books and articles. He rose up the ranks of politics.
Peres’ life story is really a journey of public service and peacemaking, from his earliest years working the land as a founder of a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, to his time serving in Israel’s War of Independence to his roles in almost every Israeli ministry, as a legislator in the Knesset and then founder of The Peres Center for Peace and, more recently, the Israeli-Innovation Center. That last venture was designed to bring attention to Israel’s technological prowess and to put that prowess to use in bringing together people from around the Middle East to work toward peaceful solutions to conflict through collaboration.
Peres, the statesman, became Israel’s ninth president from 2007 to 2014, having been an acting president previously. Along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for negotiating the Oslo Accords. He was the first former prime minister to become president of Israel, and when he left office, he was nearly the oldest and certainly one of the wisest of world leaders.
Peres was always a man in search of peace between enemies — something that eludes the leadership of all sides of the conflict today. He sought to forge alliances where none seemed possible. He argued for a two-state solution even before it was fashionable. He nurtured a peace bloc in the Knesset even as it dwindled. Some called Peres a hawk; others a dove. He was simply a pragmatist and a man of optimism and patience who believed passionately in the power of peace.
We need a world filled with the likes of Peres. We need men and women of peace whose highest aspirations are to build a world without walls in which the guns fall silent and those who seek peace can find a place.
Peres leaves us with the spirit to do better, to do more, to keep working to build peace. He serves as a gentle reminder that leadership is about courage, grace and a gentle laugh. This man of peace from a land of conflict has left us, but not without leaving a mark, a legacy and an enduring impact on those who knew him and learned from him.
Tara D. Sonenshine is former executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs until 2013.